A lot has changed regarding the view of policing since “NYPD Blue” premiered in 1993, an evolution that’s partially evident in “East New York,” which seeks to bring the cop show into the 21st century.
That makes this CBS drama more ambitious than most network crime fare, focusing on the challenges facing a precinct in a working-class neighborhood that’s witness to “a little bit of everything.” Yet it also raises the question: Given the genre’s long history, and the formula underscored by CBS’ alphabet soup of cop shows, is it possible to bend, much less break, the mold?
Created by Mike Flynn and William Finkelstein, the latter of whom served as an executive producer on “Blue” toward the end of its run, “East New York” features a sizable ensemble cast but primarily sees this world through Deputy Inspector Regina Haywood (Amanda Warren), the new commander of a precinct in East New York.
“She’ll always be the diversity hire, right?” asks her boss, the police chief, played by Jimmy Smits – another link back to “Blue,” looking a lot like what Bobby Simone might be doing had he survived. He counsels Regina to “play the long game,” part of a strong supporting cast that includes Richard Kind as Regina’s fumbling but effective right hand and Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Kevin Rankin and Elizabeth Rodriguez as veteran, seen-it-all cops.
Not surprisingly, the rank-and-file officers are wary of the new boss, just as the community is skeptical of the police, which includes an attempt to have one of the cops live in a local housing project to foster better ties.
Feeling very much like “NYPD Blue” in its texture and jittery camerawork (which was groundbreaking then and not so much now), “East New York” reflects a laudable desire to present “the job” in all its complexity, including limited resources and turf battles about which unit, say, gets saddled with investigating a dead body. It’s also notable to see a younger Black cop ask his more experienced partner, in the second episode, why he stopped a Black man.
Such nuance hasn’t traditionally (or at least consistently) been the case on the major networks. Indeed, all the talk of soul-searching about how TV depicts the police in the wake of George Floyd’s death seemingly fizzled once fall scheduling time rolled around, which might explain why there are three-series stacks of “Law & Order” and “FBI” on different nights.
To be fair, broadcasters have tried plenty of more daring cop shows through the years, and generally found that their audience, dwindling though it might be, keeps gravitating toward the TV equivalent of comfort food. Ultimately, viewers need to support such shows to buck entrenched programming practices.
One series won’t reverse the tide, but “East New York” has the potential to depict the police as people – noble and heroic at times, but not immune to insecurities and excesses – and do the same for the people with whom they interact, instead of reducing them to perps or chalk outlines.
For now, though, it’s hard to escape doubts as to whether the show can stick to that approach and, given the enduring popularity of a simpler form of cop drama, attract enough viewers to provide “East New York” the chance to play the long game.
“East New York” premieres October 2 at 9:30 p.m. ET on CBS.