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The Rookie: Feds and East New York Put a New Spin — or Two — on Copaganda

ABC's Rookie spinoff borders on situation comedy, while the CBS procedural takes a much more earnest route.
  • Left: Amanda Warren and Elizabeth Rodriguez in East New York (Photo: Peter Kramer/CBS); Right: Niecy Nash-Betts in The Rookie: Feds (Photo: Raymond Liu/ABC).
    Left: Amanda Warren and Elizabeth Rodriguez in East New York (Photo: Peter Kramer/CBS); Right: Niecy Nash-Betts in The Rookie: Feds (Photo: Raymond Liu/ABC).

    John Oliver recently slammed the Law & Order franchise as a glorified “commercial for a defective product.” The Dick Wolf-produced institution is considered a classic example of “copaganda,” which promotes celebratory portrayals of police officers that are out of step with reality.

    But the weekly adventures of tough cops who protect the streets even if it means breaking the rules isn’t the only form of “copaganda.” Arguably, the more alluring and more dangerous version presents noble cops who recognize the problems within law enforcement and wish to fix it. Over the next week, network TV is rolling out a few new additions to this genre: one that’s downright lighthearted in its first episodes; the other, much more earnest about reform, though not necessarily more grounded in reality.

    The first is The Rookie: Feds, which makes its hilarious debut on September 27 on ABC. This Rookie spinoff stars Niecy Nash-Betts as Simone Clark, a former school guidance counselor who becomes the oldest rookie at the FBI (sound familiar?). Her age is very much a number, though, as she is not just dynamic but also well-versed in technology, social media, and pop culture. 

    She’s also a maverick who breaks protocol and is impulsive, often reckless. However, her boss Matthew Garza (Felix Solis) graciously grades her on a curve. He says at one point, “That was a 6 on the Simone Reckless Scale!” That’s probably not how the FBI works in reality, but it’s adorable. 

    Simone isn’t a rookie for long. She finagles her way out of dull, entry-level background check work through pluckiness and spunk, and her super guidance counselor powers combined with folksy common sense puts her well ahead of veteran FBI agents. 

    Her fellow rookie is Brendon Acres (Kevin Zegers), who was once a famous vampire detective — not literally, the show isn’t that off the wall. No, Acres was once an actor who starred as a vampire detective on a popular TV series. He’s now in the FBI. It’s an unlikely career change but it’s clever lampshading for how so many TV FBI agents boast model good looks.

    Simone and Brendon connect with their stoic partners remarkably easy. Veteran agents Laura Stensen (Britt Robertson) and Carter Hope (James Lesure) insist they won’t discuss their failed personal relationships with the professional colleagues they literally just met but quickly change their mind after dialogue that’s not significantly more complex than “pretty please.” The dialogue is consistently giggle-inducing. A quick sample of what the characters say with straight faces: “I’m gonna clip Garza’s wings!” “The kidnappers lit a fuse and we’ve only got two hours to stop the explosion!” “My daddy always says if something don’t seem right, turn on the light.” That last one seems reasonably insightful.

    Police reform is also addressed here. Simone’s father Christopher (Frankie Faison) has reservations about her new role in law enforcement. She believes she can change the system from within, but reform advocate Christopher is skeptical. He does institute a firm house rule — her badge and gun must never enter the house.

    Nash-Betts holds the show together, and Simone is impossible not to like. She’s smart, driven, and kind. Solis imbues Garza with a gentle authority as the unit’s reliable paternal figure who struggles with his own personal challenges. The series heavy is Tracy (Courtney Ford), the devil in the blue pantsuit who offers Carter a Faustian bargain if he spies on Garza and helps her sink the department. She is a campy delight. 

    The crimes of the week are engaging, if not spectacular. The Rookie: Feds almost works best as a situation comedy, one you’ll watch primarily to hang out with the wacky but nonetheless charming characters. 

    East New York, which debuts October 2 on CBS, exists in a dream world where superficial grittiness and depth obscure its inherently fantastic nature. Amanda Warren is Deputy Inspector Regina Haywood, the newly promoted commanding officer of the 74th Precinct in East New York, Brooklyn. Haywood is the idealized “good” cop. The police reform movement isn’t directly mentioned in the pilot, but Haywood has barely moved into her office before implementing most of the desired changes. She orders her officers to focus on actual violent crime and stop filling quotas with arrests for loitering, traffic tickets, and other mundane offenses. 

    In the real world, Haywood would quickly become a Fox News bogeyman. Republicans and many Democrats would denounce her as a radical, soft-on-crime Marxist liberal, but on East New York, her reforms are met with minimal if any pushback. Haywood even asks officers to consider living in the neighborhood they police, a concept known as community policing. Officer Brandy Quinlan (Olivia Luccardi), who’s white, eagerly volunteers. It’s not easy. The residents don’t trust her, and someone even spray paints “PIG” on her front door. Nonetheless, she sticks with it, even making friends with ladies in the laundry room.

    Jimmy Smits is a comforting presence as Haywood’s boss, Chief John Suarez. He fully supports her and together, they commiserate over how they don’t have enough cops on the street to prevent robberies, or detectives to catch killers. The second episode directly links funding issues to unsolved homicides in the housing projects. It’s a more subtle attack on the “defund the police” movement but not one based in fact. A recent study revealed that cops in selected cities devote four percent of their time to violent crimes. 

    However, the police procedural plot lines so far don’t disappoint. There are fun twists and turns, and Kevin Rankin (Friday Night Lights) and Elizabeth Rodriguez (Orange is the New Black) have believable chemistry as Detectives Tommy Killian and Crystal Morales. Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Castle) provides charming comic relief as veteran Officer Marvin Sandeford, but the humor unfortunately lessens the impact when he startles his younger partner, Officer Andre Bentley (Lavel Schley), with “old-school” cop opinions. It’ll be worth seeing how the series develops and if Haywood faces any actual confrontation from the media, politicians, and the police unions, who are rarely visible on these shows despite their outsized power in the real world.  

    East New York and The Rookie: Feds deserve praise for casting Black women as the leads in two primetime dramas, but the series shouldn’t shy away from the documented struggles Black women face in law enforcement. Black women officers have lost their jobs when standing up to police brutality, and law enforcement’s power structure is traditionally white-male dominated (Haywood and Simone’s bosses are both understanding Latino men). Let’s hope the shows can avoid retreating into too-easy escapism from a difficult reality.

    The Rookie: Feds premieres September 27 at 10 PM ET on ABC, with new episodes airing on Tuesdays. East New York premieres October 2 at 9:30 PM ET on CBS, with new episodes airing on Sundays.

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    Stephen Robinson is a political columnist, arts writer, and theatre maker.

    TOPICS: The Rookie: Feds, ABC, CBS, East New York, Amanda Warren, Frankie Faison, Niecy Nash-Betts, Copaganda, Procedurals