Shawn Ryan is most associated with The Shield, the complex downer of a drama that explored the shady dealings of rogue cops in L.A. While the series wasn’t exactly believable, it was at least reality-adjacent. (And excellent.)
Ryan is a co-producer on CBS’ new drama S.W.A.T., but don’t let that stir any false hope: S.W.A.T. is the most vapid, rah-rah ridiculous kind of cop show imaginable—a superhero fantasy that takes place in a Los Angeles populated by mustache-twirling villains and gorgeous, perfect-in-spite-of-their-flaws cops. Every crime has a clear motive, and every cop gets the chance to over-explain an “a-ha!” moment that leads them to save the victim (and frequently kill the perp) just in the nick of time. Could it get much worse? Throw in some surface-level feints at discussions on race, and it does. It does.
S.W.A.T. stars Shemar Moore as “Hondo” Harrelson, a disciplined bad boy who grew up in South L.A. and manages to work that fact into every case that his unit catches. In the first episode, Hondo is made leader of his team after his mentor accidentally shoots an unarmed black kid. At every moment, Hondo is essentially a perfect human being—he saves the kid’s life with a field dressing and quick transport to the hospital, and the incident ignites racial tensions that he’s able to calm largely by reminiscing with people from his old neighborhood and reminding him that the police are there to help. Just like real life!
And then there are the action sequences, which appear so frequently you’d think that L.A. was a constant war zone complete with military-level firefights. In the first episode, two beat cops stumble into a warehouse in which one bad guy, in silhouette, happens to be admiring a huge rocket launcher. In another episode, the guys—and one tough lady, played by Lina Esco—bust into a beautiful, well-lit meth lab, and must go hand-to-hand with a bunch of badass guys who are dressed head-to-toe in hazmat suits. (The actual meth cooks apparently also do the muscle work.) The S.W.A.T. unit always reacts perfectly, except on those occasions when one makes a minor mistake and must be saved in the nick of time by another member of the team. This is usually followed by a wink and a quick diss—they’re always joshing, even when under heavy gunfire. They have fun, this S.W.A.T. team.
Enter a young hotshot who’s new to the team, the fantastically named Jim Street (Alex Russell). The character is introduced whipping through DTLA on his motorcycle, indicating that he is indeed a rule-breaker. He’ll shake up the hardworking team by playing by his own rules, in direct defiance of S.W.A.T.’s strict adherence to their own. The character even has a dark backstory, which later in the season will involve, strangely, a guest appearance by Twin Peaks’ Sherilyn Fenn. That subplot is as pat and silly as every other one introduced in the first few episodes of this series (which, by the way, is based on both the 1975 TV series and the mostly forgotten 2003 film). But here, let’s list them anyway: There’s another S.W.A.T. team, led by a guy named Mumford, that’s in constant competition with the main one, jockeying for the tougher jobs. Hondo is having an affair with his direct superior, which could jeopardize both of their careers. One cop is constantly being kicked out of his apartment by girlfriends, and must find a place to crash. In a sinister twist, the big boss secretly wants to replace Hondo with his white counterpart.
When S.W.A.T. isn’t out in the field, shooting bad guys from a moving helicopter even while they use innocent civilians as human shields, it’s situated in the least plausible government-run building in TV history: The HQ looks like the creation of Q from James Bond, a lair filled with amazing computers, training centers, and armored vehicles that would make any branch of the Armed Forces jealous. It’s only the ninth least-plausible part of the show, though, so that’s something.
As a realistic look at an L.A. S.W.A.T. unit, S.W.A.T. is a pretty dismal failure. As wish-fulfillment/power fantasy, it feels aimed at the level of a 12-year-old boy: The good guys are good, and they know when it’s okay to cross the line (and break the law) in order to get the job done. The bad guys are unquestionably bad, like one man who murders his way out of prison specifically to rape a young girl he’d been lusting after. Locking up a suspect in the trunk of a cop car and then shooting him with a Taser dart is just another (kinda fun) part of the job. The dialogue doesn’t help, with every plot point explained and re-explained, every lead finding its mark immediately, and every good guy making the shot in the nick of time.
The only minor saving grace of S.W.A.T. is its action sequences, one of which pays homage to the epic bank robbery in Heat. But well-choreographed and -filmed gun battles can only go so far. Everything around them is either a cliché or an entry-level Scooby-Doo mystery, and when it strives for more, it falls even flatter. Shawn Ryan’s brain and Shemar Moore’s abs deserve better.