"The new AMC series 61st Street could not be more timely or necessary if it tried," says Tim Lowery of the drama series from creator Peter Moffat, premiering Sunday. "Set on Chicago’s South Side, it follows the uproar that occurs when Moses Johnson (Tosin Cole), an affable high-school track star bound for a college scholarship, is accused of murdering a police officer after stumbling into a dustup on his walk home. Moses, who is not in the game, becomes, through manipulation by the Chicago Police Department and media, something like Public Enemy No. 1 to some and the manifestation of everything wrong with policing to others. It’s a story that, devastatingly, keeps unfolding in reality, on streets not too far from 61st, again and again and again. So simply as a conversation starter, a work of fiction that gets people discussing arguably the biggest real problem of our day (and sadly many, many days before that) and spotlights something that desperately needs a spotlight, 61st Street deserves credit. If it gets one viewer mad or incredulous, or makes them want to volunteer or even changes their mind, the show has done its job. But—and not to ask an annoyingly basic, redundant question, but here it goes anyway—does a great, meaningful message make for great, meaningful TV?"
61st Street plays "Bingo" with Peak TV clichés: "Get ready to sweep your Peak TV bingo card clean because (Peter) Moffat is back with 61st Street, a new AMC drama that’s a watchable blend of provocative ideas, a semi-vivid setting and one narrative trope after another that feels lifted from one prestige TV show after another, overlaid one on top of the other so that moral murkiness and narrative cacophony go hand-in-hand," says Daniel Fienberg. "If you’ve seen Your Honor and The Night Of (based on Moffat’s Criminal Justice) or Seven Seconds (not affiliated with Moffat in any way) or The Chi, every beat in 61st Street will probably feel familiar. But you’ve never seen them with Courtney B. Vance and Aunjanue Ellis front-and-center. Unless you watched Lovecraft Country, I mean. That was better and more adventurous than this is, at least through the six of eight total episodes sent to critics."
61st Street isn't very original, but its strong performances are worth watching: "Although 61st Street is very much Vance’s show to carry, and the writing makes the most of the talented actor’s depiction of repressed turmoil, as a brilliant, deceptively bumbling warrior for the invisible among us," says Tambay Obenson. "He isn’t driven by fortune or celebrity. He’s fueled by righteous indignation and unwavering ethics. A realist who not only wants to defend Moses Johnson but also aims to take down an entire system that continues to send a disproportionately large number of young Black men to prison, the series considers the toll he’s endured by a decades-long commitment to ideals that are beyond himself. There’s also a physicality in Vance’s performance, marked by an overall visible awkwardness, as he zips around the city always in a dark, slightly oversized suit, and a shifting gaze that’s obscured by thick black glasses just beneath a head of 'hat hair' owed to his affinity for fedoras. The straight-backed character the actor often plays is deliberately deglamorized, and Vance fully and comfortably inhabits Roberts, balancing both dramatic demands and occasional levity."
It’s dispiriting how much 61st Street struggles to keep viewers' interest, especially by showing the South Side as a desolate wasteland: "Other than an elaborately shot foot chase between empty lots, broken fences and cramped alleyways, a chase that does little to introduce viewers to the community space, people and full geography of the South Side, 61st Street is a collection of distressing episodes that only have room for serious politics and generational pains. In that way, you can tell how much of an outsider the British Moffat is to the Windy City. Aesthetically, the series relies on two types of lighting: a dingy pale-blue shade for scenes featuring cops and a turgid rust for everyone else. 61st Street believes that harsh tones automatically equal importance. If the series’ point is to humanize the South Side, then why render it merely as a desolate wasteland? Anyone who lives there knows the richer varieties of life teeming from every corner. But you wouldn’t know it by watching this visually unappealing series. Instead, the show optically confirms every outsider’s worst nightmare."
61st Street is a mixed bag of a drama: "In its least convincing moments, 61st Street feels derivative of other works that have tackled similar subject matter," says Caroline Framke. "In its best ones, it paces itself, pushes beyond the basics, and trusts its actors find more nuance beyond the tropes that could have swallowed their characters whole."
The obstacles for Vance's 61st Street character just keep piling up: "The last time a TV character started out with this much stacked against him was when we met Bryan Cranston's Walter White at the start of another AMC series, Breaking Bad," says David Bianculli. "Franklin, too, is facing a terminal medical diagnosis. His teen son is autistic, and the murder case he ends up taking — after his intended retirement — is full of twists, turns and unforeseen dangers. His activities, in and out of court, begin affecting his wife's political aspirations, and vice versa."
Executive producer and former Chicago police officer J. David Shanks explains why 61st Street isn't an easy watch: "I really want people to understand that it’s not about Black trauma at all," says Shanks. "We know this world, we know the story, it happens to us, and it affects us, ad nauseam. We use the (inciting incident in the pilot) to pull you into the story in a very visceral and gut-wrenching and unflinching way. We want the circumstances to be dire, like, ‘Oh my God, this boy’s life is going to be over.’ It’s the fragility of Black excellence that we’re really trying to tap into. I just want to emphasize that it’s not about re-traumatizing our community over and over again. We use the pilot as an inciting incident for the entire series, and that sets the table for a bigger conversation."
Courtney B. Vance sees a throughline from playing Johnnie Cochran on The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story to 61st Street: "Folks saw ‘O.J.’ and said, ‘Wow, this guy is an overnight sensation,’” Vance tells the Los Angeles Times with a laugh. “So I said, ‘OK, I’ll take that.’” 61st Street continues Vance’s streak of projects that grapple with the often-explosive subject matter of race and racism. “I’m still trying to find projects that ask questions, are about provocative issues, that are fun to do and make a little money," he says. "My wife and I, we will literally sit there and say, ‘Is this worth doing?’ We will literally ask ourselves that question because sometimes it’s not clear.”