Image via ABC

Five Things ‘The Rookie’ Needs to Do If It Gets a Second Season on ABC

The character of Captain Malcolm Reynolds on Joss Whedon’s Firefly is almost a better Han Solo than Han Solo. With just a short single season and a feature film, Nathan Fillion (and his co-stars) have earned a lifetime of goodwill from those of us who watched the show as it aired and have been left wanting more. Now, along with an army of nerds in brown coats and knit hats, middle-aged moms and college kids also love the actor thanks to his run on Castle. This means that his newest series The Rookie is likely to get renewed for a second season. The show is in a terrible time slot, but it’s improved on the ratings of its predecessors. The DVR and streaming numbers are perhaps strong enough to justify a second season. In my initial review, I wrote that this show could be a great one, if only it had the courage to do some different things. Below, I detail five big moves they could make in a second season to make a third one a foregone conclusion.

Other than the very strong cast, including recurring guests like Sarah Shahi and Shawn Ashmore, the thing that makes this show so unique is the sort of cop stories it tells. We all know that there is a veritable alphabet soup of murder procedurals on broadcast television. The Rookie offers a different perspective on these cases, literally. Rather than following the lead detectives on a case, these are the officers who arrive first on the scene and the only follow-up is off-screen paperwork. However, there could be a lot more done in the way of follow-up, at least from a storytelling perspective. These cases touch on so many issues relevant to our current discussion about the relationship between policing and the communities they serve, but rarely does the show give such issues the kind of deep consideration shown by other network dramas, such as what Grey’s Anatomy did with a sexual assault storyline this week.

In fairness, the show does make an attempt every so often to comment on these issues, however each time they do, they ultimately undermine the message. For example, the most recent episode at the time of this writing featured a storyline about how mentally ill and injured individuals are often arrested rather than getting the help they need. This storyline involved a simple assault of a character’s father, who also happens to be a psychologist. Even though the dad clearly didn’t want to press charges against his attacker, his patient was arrested anyway. The show tried to wrap up the story with the character adding something to the police report advocating for help. Instead of only scratching the surface of these issues, this show should dive deeper into them and trust that audiences will follow.

The cold open of this show is often a short interaction between one of the titular rookies and some criminal. These are often played as wacky and fun interactions. In the most recent one, a clearly strung out man is digging up his mother’s grave for her jewelry. This concept is horrifying, and instead of treating this set-up with any kind of sensitivity, it’s played for a trip-and-fall gag. In the kind of pain only the horror of drug addiction could bring about, the addict in question was a punchline. This isn’t the first time the show has done this. Later in the episode, a man with a cocaine addiction goes into a near-murderous frenzy as a result of an earthquake. Again, this scenario is played for laughs, despite the truly disturbing details involved.

Any show that deals with the darker side of humanity has to have moments of levity to break the tension. However, for those whom drug addiction is a reality, the way The Rookie treats these scenarios is offensive. Equally troubling is how each time the issue comes up, the show acts like we can just “arrest” our way out of the problem. The nature of this show is such that we see the beginnings of investigations rather than their conclusions. Still, they need to be much more sensitive about this particular issue, because otherwise they really have nothing of value to say about it.

One thing that contributes to these problems is that every police character on the show is a hero. From the captain on down, the police we interact with all do “the right thing” for the most part. One way to add some real tension to the show, would be to include some bad cops. So far, the only antagonists who aren’t criminals are Ashmore’s defense attorney character and an internal affairs officer. It’s telling that these two characters are antagonists because their primary role is to protect the populace from overzealous/corrupt police officers. Again, in fairness, these characters have ultimately proven to be “good eggs” nonetheless. Yet, what this show needs is a villain that the good guys can’t just throw some cuffs on.

I’m from Pittsburgh, PA, and this past week my hometown was torn apart because of a clearly bad police shooting that, technically, was legal because of how broadly the law dealing with lethal force is written. Going into every episode of The Rookie, audiences know that they will always arrest the criminal. They’ve never had one get away, at least not yet. But in this social climate, a storyline about how good police officers are unable to stop bad people on the force is desperately needed. Thus far, the rights of the accused have been painted as annoying obstacles to the “good work” of our main characters. If this show is to be a drama worth watching, it can’t just be a propaganda machine for authoritarian policing.

In the town where I grew up, a 20-year veteran of the local police force came to my grade school class to talk about policing. My clearest memory of this discussion is how, despite what I’d seen on television, this officer never once drew his service weapon. Not only did he admit this freely, he was proud of it. Unfortunately for The Rookie, the nature of television drama is such that viewers expect to see some lead flying. Thus, every episode, there is a big gunfight. Yet, if this show wants to be about the lives of the beat cop, it needs to be much less violent. Sure, gunfights are great drama, but it’s not the only thing that can create tension and excitement.

The cast of this series is fantastic, which is one of the main reasons that I keep giving them 40-odd minutes of my week. Even with all the problems in the show, the actors are a delight to watch. The writers should use this depth of talent to their advantage. This cast could pull off a dramatic and exciting episode where the most dangerous thing they do is chase some kid’s lost puppy. This doesn’t mean that there can’t ever be violence or even gunfire. But by making such instances less common, they will actually have much more impact than they do currently. Instead of relying on “schmuck-bait” (which means placing main characters who will not be killed off in danger), the cast can handle the heavy lifting required to create drama out of the more mundane aspects of police work.

One of the reasons that Grey’s Anatomy, more than just another in an unending line of hospital-based dramas, is still exciting after 15 seasons has little to do with the medical field. Rather, Shonda Rhimes and her writers tell stories about people rather than professions. Of the eight characters pictured in the above image, only three have had any real storylines about their lives out-of-uniform. Even those involved a spouse who also used to be police, an unsanctioned relationship between two of the rookies, and an overbearing father of a rookie (now the head of IA). Police work is a tough calling, especially on the personal lives of its officers. Instead of mining this for drama, The Rookie seems to be ignoring it completely.

So, in a second season, we should see more of their time in civilian clothes. Perhaps they could have the rookies work different shifts. This way, audiences get a personal story and a police story in the same episode. They could even do an entire “Off-Duty” episode, where at no point do any of the characters appear in uniform. Either way, audiences need to feel like these characters are also “real” people in order to care about them. We get glimpses into their personal lives at times. Yet, like the rights of the accused, these are treated as obstacles getting in the way of policing, rather than anything really important to the characters.

For all of the above criticism, The Rookie is a show whose heart wants to be in the right place. Yet, whether it is the bloody battle for ratings or nervous network executives, they seem to be aiming for the lowest common denominator in their storytelling. If they get a second season, they have to be willing to try something bold in order to win over audiences. This doesn’t mean that every rookie in this fictional Los Angeles has to do SWAT work or anything like that. Rather, it means that the show’s creators have to be willing to take the kind of risks that truly great storytellers make. From what we’ve seen thus far, both the writers and the cast are up to the task. If they don’t take these risks, however, then The Rookie might just end up being another in a long line of forgettable police shows.

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