TV Review - The Red Line (2019)

Caitlin Parrish (Supergirl and Under the Dome) and Erica Weiss have created this series that on its face is dealing with the issue of Black Lives Matter. The executive producers are Ava DuVernay (13th and A Wrinkle in Time) and Greg Berlanti (Love, Simon and Arrow). Because of these two, it seems the series can't just be about that particular issue, it also has to be about the intersectionality of various other issues. There is also a very diverse cast, a true rainbow where almost everybody is represented, not everybody but there's a fairly good range here. This is commendable. It gives breath and voice to so many minorities who feel under-represented, especially on a network like CBS that has had its criticisms in terms of its representation. This is also a limited series. There are technically only eight episodes. They're being aired over the course of four weeks, but after which, that's it. In theory, there won't be another batch of eight episodes next season or next year.

As such, there might have been a need for the writers and producers to cram as much into this series as they possibly could. They probably decided to put as many intersections in this intersectionality. If handled correctly, this makes for a very dense and rich piece of television. If not handled correctly, it makes for a too stuffed piece of television, a pile up that dilutes or turns the limited episodes into a zero-sum game. The focus in effect keeps getting pulled and as it plays out, the whole Black Lives Matter issue becomes increasingly the least important thing in the narrative.

Now, Black Lives Matter is about the killing of unarmed black men by police or authority figures. One of the best, if the most powerful, series that dealt directly with this issue is Netflix's Seven Seconds. Much of that series was about the police investigation and subsequent trial that followed. Not all Black Lives Matter cases go to trial, but Seven Seconds provided a perfect way to really analyze and drill down on the problems with the police and the criminal justice system as it relates to people of color. It also followed on how the family of the victim handle the aftermath of which, centering almost exclusively on the grief and guilt, as well as related feelings. It was a brilliant series that deserved its Emmy and other award considerations.

This series isn't really about Black Lives Matter, as much as it uses Black Lives Matter as a jumping off point to explore other things. One of which is adoption of black children by white persons. Another of which is interracial gay relationships. Another is Chicago politics. Another is school politics. It's a lot and it starts to pile up almost immediately. It bounces back-and-forth in a way that might be engaging to some, but it can also feel like diversions. Those diversions made me lose sight of what it originally started. I became more interested in the adoption and interracial gay storyline that I lost concern for the whole Black Lives Matter thing.

To me, it was more about the loss of one half of a same-sex couple and its effect on the adopted child and widowed spouse. Yet, when other scenes popped up about the Black Lives Matter thing, it was almost like whiplash, reminding me of the show's original intent. The series would then make diversions within those diversions that I felt a dilution that the show was not taking the time or developing out the stories or ideas it was bringing up. It felt like it was throwing everything against the wall. I get that the show is trying to organically branch out and follow paths that spring from this situation. After a short while though, it gets to be too much but at the same time giving us too little.

Noah Wyle (Falling Skies and ER) stars as Daniel Calder, a history teacher at a high school in Chicago. He's a white man and a gay man who's married to a black man. They adopted a black girl when she was a baby who is now a teenager attending the same high school where Daniel teaches. Daniel's husband takes the metro train known as the "red line" home every night from work. Daniel also rides the same train to work.

On the way home one night, Daniel's husband, named Harrison Brennan, stops at a convenience store. That convenience store is robbed, which prompts the police to be called. Harrison tries to help the store clerk who is injured and a bit hysterical, but when the cops arrive, one of them, a young white guy, shoots Harrison, killing him instantly. The events of the series then occur six months later in the days and weeks, leading up to whether or not that cop will be indicted by a grand jury and have a trial for what he did.

Emayatzy Corinealdi (The Invitation and Middle of Nowhere) co-stars as Tia Young, a financial analyst who works in downtown Chicago. She has her own office in some tall building in the Loop. She's married to a metro train conductor, the conductor of the same "red line" train that Daniel and his family rides. It's not a spoiler when it's revealed that Tia is the biological mother to the black girl that Daniel and his husband adopted. She's chosen to run for city council or alderman of the 6th Ward of Chicago. Her key issue is reforming the police, but she's getting major push-back from the incumbent alderman.

Recently, the NBC series This Is Us did a storyline involving Sterling K. Brown's Randall Perason running for political office in Philadelphia. There was a far different dynamic happening in that series, but that show was balancing multiple story lines. We hardly ever saw the other candidate, but I still feel like I got more of an understanding of who that candidate was and why Randall was running against him. The other candidate wasn't reduced to simple soundbites. Here, that's not really the case. Tia's opponent is really reduced to simple things like sexism or him being corrupt for using political pressure to help his son. The latter was enough to fill an entire episode, but instead it gets blown by here.

Noel Fisher (Shameless and Castle Rock) also co-stars as Paul Evans, the aforementioned cop who shoots and kills Daniel's husband. Not unlike Seven Seconds, there is a bit of the cops trying to cover up his crime. For a couple of episodes, it does seem like he's questioning himself over his own actions, if he acted from a racial bias, but that's quickly dropped to devote time to what is quasi-portrayed as an abusive relationship with his father, as well as living in the shadow of his brother who is a paralyzed former cop too. Both those aspects about Paul are good avenues to explore, but the series is too busy juggling everything else to give those aspects any real room to breathe.

Aliyah Royale also co-stars as Jira Calder-Brennan, the adopted daughter of Daniel. When her other adopted father is shot and killed, she goes into a tailspin, suffering a kind of identity crisis. It's unclear if she wanted to know who her biological mother was prior but since Harrison's death, she's desperate to meet her biological mother. She maintains that since Daniel is white, he won't be able to understand what she's experiencing as a person of color. Harrison is black and so is her biological mother, she assumes.

Yes, the experience of being black is one that Daniel can't truly feel, but Jira's concerns seem to relate specifically to the violence visited upon Harrison. The series does have the two reconcile, but it never acknowledges that as a gay man, that kind of violence is something that is akin to what other minorities have faced. The Matthew Shepard Act specifically speaks to that violence. This series does want to acknowledge other forms of bigotry and racism. How it chooses to do so in one particular scene is a bit clunky.

Vinny Chhibber plays Liam Bhatt, a fellow teacher at the same school as Daniel. Specifically, he runs the class that Jira is in. He's of Indian-descent and gay. He also secretly harbors feelings for Daniel. After a twist is revealed, Liam goes on a date with Daniel. They go to a place in the gay neighborhood of Chicago, known as Boystown. While there, two white gay men approach Liam and ask him what he is in terms of his race or ethnicity. They then make some asinine comments to him.

This scene is supposed to be short-hand for the kind of racism that men of color face in the LGBTQ community. While their comments might have been inartful or insensitive, they didn't seem to rise to the level of racial tension as Paul's shooting of Harrison was. That's a bit of my issue with this series. It takes that short-hand and tries to make bigger points with it that are inadequate. Yet, I do appreciate the inclusion of this character who is a gay man of color. There's also J.J. Hawkins who plays Riley Hooper, Jira's friend who is either transgender or gender non-conforming. More characters like this on network TV is much appreciated. However, a better series that deals with those kinds of racism is Netflix's Dear White People.

Rated TV-14-L.
Running Time: 1 hr. / 8 eps.
Sundays at 8PM on CBS.


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