Golden Boy debuts tonight on CBS at 10 p.m. Eastern. It will air two episodes in that timeslot before moving to its regular timeslot of Fridays at 9 p.m. Eastern on March 8.
One of the great pleasures of serialized television is that it can take one character, then show viewers how that character became someone else. Willow Rosenberg starts out Buffy The Vampire Slayer as a shy teenage nerd in secret love with her male best friend and ends it as a badass lesbian witch. Peggy Olsen starts out Mad Men as a quiet secretary and has gradually become a creative genius and advertising maven. And, of course, Walter White begins Breaking Bad as a mild-mannered teacher and slowly descends into the life of a crime lord, a life that demands he open himself up to a darkness that was always inside of him. (If it seems as if all of these stories start with the character in a place of relative powerlessness and then taking their fair share of power, well, that’s television for you.) At its best, serialized television is a time-lapse photo of a flower slowly growing, a character blossoming and growing right before viewers’ eyes.
Golden Boy, CBS’ new police procedural from creator Nicholas Wootton and executive producer Greg Berlanti, aims to foreground the process of change as much as it possibly can. In the opening moments of the pilot, viewers are introduced to Walter William Clark, Jr., played by Theo James. He’s in the midst of his day-to-day job as a beat cop when he gets a chance to display some heroism and turns himself into a media sensation, which propels him to a job as a detective, where he’s paired with Det. Don Owen, played by the great Chi McBride. The pilot then flashes seven years into the future, where it’s revealed that Clark will eventually become the youngest police commissioner in New York City history. Hints are dropped about what may or may not happen over the course of the series. The Freedom Tower stands proudly and complete out the window. There are central questions about whether Clark got to where he is by being a good cop or bad cop. It all feels very, very sketchy.
Those who’ve been following Berlanti for a while might notice that this show bears some similarities to his 2004 series Jack And Bobby, a surprisingly heartfelt and enjoyable series about two brothers, one of whom would die and one of whom would go on to become the president of the United States. (No, it wasn’t based on the Kennedys.) An often deeply moving series about the pains and pleasures of growing up in a small, university town, the show boasted a great cast, intricate scripts, and a smartly developed premise that flashed between the present and the future, wherein the presidency of whichever McCallister brother ascended to the highest seat in the land was detailed via a PBS-style talking heads documentary, drawing parallels between lessons both boys learned in their youth and how those lessons would be used by the most powerful man on Earth. If it sounds cheesy, it was. But as with the best of Berlanti’s work, it was also pretty damn awesome, reveling in its cheesiness to create something incredibly and meaningfully earnest.
Golden Boy aims to do much the same with Clark, but it strains to connect the future and present where Jack And Bobby carried off its conceit much more effortlessly. (Wootton created Golden Boy, but Berlanti was central to fleshing out the conceit, according to the Television Critics Association press tour panel for the series.) The central question of just how Clark will ascend to police commissioner feels disconnected from everything else that happens, and it probably shouldn’t, since the “future” events are taking place just seven years from now. On the earlier series, the future could feel disconnected from the present, but it was also several decades from this moment. The disconnection here just fuels how little the show seems to understand Clark, seems to want him to represent both sides of the good/evil coin. There are times in the first two episodes when this works, when Clark’s naked ambition gets the best of him or angers somebody he’d be better off keeping as an ally. But the need to keep him a mostly relatable protagonist always undercuts the show just when it seems like things might start getting good. (It doesn’t help that James is much better at playing the darker sides of the character.)
Now, the serialization on this show isn’t particularly deep. It’s not even on the level of the serialization on CBS’ other mildly serialized shows, like The Good Wife or Person Of Interest. The case-of-the-week elements are fairly standard cases of the week, and it’s hard to see how the cases viewers are shown are going to add up to the Clark shown in the future. Sure, there are blatant stabs at having Clark tell his story to various bystanders in the future, but these come off as clumsy and half-hearted at best, and they distract from the generally solid procedural plotting. CBS certainly knows how to do a detective show, and the case-of-the-week plots on Golden Boy are fairly strong for a series of this type. If you’ve seen one show like this, you’ll probably figure out most of the twists and turns, but they still have a gravity to them that makes them work, and the show’s conceit makes it easier to take when they’re shifted toward the background.
If Golden Boy works—and it sort of does, in spite of itself—it’s because of the connection between Clark and Owen. McBride has bounced around all number of intriguing TV shows for the better part of a decade now, so it only makes sense that he’d eventually end up on a CBS detective show, in hopes of a steady paycheck for the foreseeable future. But, being Chi McBride, he also ended up on one with a higher concept than most other CBS shows, and he’s brought his world-weary gravitas to a part that could have felt thankless in other actors’ hands. When Owen gets upset with Clark or when he gets irritated at Clark’s unwillingness to do things by the book, McBride makes those emotions feel real, instead of like standard obstacles standing in the way of a Cop Who Gets Things Done. The show is mostly following that narrative, to be sure, but it’s giving Owen’s voice a welcome weight. The more the show focuses on scenes between McBride and James, the stronger it is, and over the course of the episodes sent to critics, it’s obvious that the writers know this too, as the scenes between the characters get longer and more in depth.
James can be a bit of a cipher at the center of this maelstrom, but that’s partially by design, as the audience is supposed to ask questions about him at every turn. James does his best with this, but it ultimately proves to be a bit much, though he has moments throughout (particularly when his character gets angry). The show also features generally strong turns from a supporting cast of players who will be known to fans of failed TV series, like Holt McCallany of Lights Out or Bonnie Somerville of Kitchen Confidential. And as Arroyo, whose character appears central to the series’ mythology, Kevin Alejandro brings the spark he brings to most everything he does. Richard Shepard, who has recently directed some great episodes of Girls, turns up to direct the pilot and gives it his usual snap and nicely framed visuals.
CBS rarely makes things that are all that bad. For the most part, its shows are pitched directly at an audience that doesn’t include the sorts of TV fans who read this site, but it reaches that audience very well and mostly with shows that maintain a certain level of craftsmanship. So it’s not really a slight to say that Golden Boy does a lot of things kind of well, particularly whenever it gets McBride and James on screen together for any length of time. The problem is just that the framing device of the show promises so much more than what the show actually offers, and the series’ failure to live up to that is all the more disappointing. If serialized TV can be like a time-lapse film, then Golden Boy fails because its endpoint feels particularly nebulous. It’s as if that budding flower could just as easily become a rose or a thistle, and the show is hedging its bets just because it can.