‘Golden Boy’ Could Have Been A Network Version Of ‘The Wire,’ But That Is Not The Case

During the first episode of CBS’s new police procedural Golden Boy, which premieres tonight at 10 PM, Walter Clark (Theo James) tells a reporter who is interviewing him about his rapid rise from street cop to police commissioner, “Inside me there are two dogs at war. One good and one evil. Now which one wins?” The reporter knows the answer immediately: “The one you feed the most.”

The language might sound a bit stiff. But it’s a great premise for a television show. Many major problems in law enforcement today are the results of gorging the evil dog, from the profits police departments can make from asset forfeiture, the kinds of quotas that were the subject of the third season of The Wire, and an arms race between police departments and criminals that have made it more likely cops will bring military-style force to bear on civilians. Golden Boy, which flashes back and forth between Clark’s arrival in the Homicide department seven years before his appointment as Commissioner and his early days performing his duties in that new post, sets itself up as the story of how Clark acquired the principals that guide him in his post. It could have been a fascinating—and dark—look at how someone acquires the sense of power that allows them to become former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, who is currently in jail for committing conspiracy, mail fraud, and lying to the Internal Revenue Service, or to see how The Wire‘s Ervin Burrell turned into the kind of craven career-hound he was.

But Golden Boy doesn’t have the guts to go there. Instead, the show is the story of Walter Clark’s journey from hotheadednes to sober spouter of aphorisms. Commissioner Clark is the kind of man who says of confidential informants “They’re an important part of the job and they die forgotten…It’s doubtful his associates know he was a snitch. It might bring trouble to the family,” failing to acknowledge the kind of pressure that police departments put on suspects to turn them into confidential informants, and once they’re doing that job, that the incentives can encourage such sources to bring in false information. He is, apparently, the police brass equivalent of television’s bevy of moderate Republicans, a guy who turns his back on the Mayor to meet with victims’ advocates because he’s appalled by the suggestion that he’d “Blow off a victim’s advocate for a guy I don’t like?” As a fantasy of police immunity from political pressure goes, this dream practically comes spangled in My Little Pony-style rainbows and sparkles, it’s so sweet optimistic. And the show seems to exist in a world where there’s no such thing as a bad police shooting like the ones we saw in the Los Angeles Police Department’s hunt for Christopher Dorner—Walter’s shooting of a suspect in the case that made him a hero was good, and as Commissioner, he tells a shaky female cop not only that “Preliminary investigations indicate it was a clean shooting in a difficult situation. In my view, that makes you a hero,” but that she should get all the PTSD treatment she needs before coming back to work.

This is an irritating enough framework. But Golden Boy, despite its innovative framing of police questions, falls into cliches in its execution. Initially, it looks like the show’s use of Chi McBride as Detective Don Owen, Walter’s older partner, is promising. When the two of them first go out on assignment, Walter leaving their office building through a haze of reporters eager to cover him as a tabloid-moving Hero Cop, Walter mistakes Don opening a car door as a courtesy. “Who am I, Morgan Freeman?” Owen asks him. “Open your own damn door.” And when Walter breaks into a suspect’s apartment to try to advance the case against him, Owen tells him that “All this information: useless. If this gets out, this guy is going to walk,” and points out that Walter’s endangered Owen’s prospects for a secure retirement, being careless with the man who is suposed to mentor him in an already-difficult situation. But he quickly devolves into aphorism, revealing himself to be Walter’s union delegate when he’s caught talking to a reporter, an event that apparently has no real effect on their relationship. Owen, it seems, is mostly there to admit minor personal flaws for the sake of drama and to steer Walter in the right direction.

Structurally, the show couldn’t have him reject his protege or really dislike him, but I wish it would at least engage with why someone like Owen couldn’t be police commissioner while Walter can. Is it race? Ambition? Does Walter’s willingness to bend the rules to bring in big collars and more media attention make him a more attractive candidate than someone who wants to do the job with integrity? Golden Boy would be a much more interesting show for posing these questions, and for offering up a different, but more discomfiting, end result.