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If CBS's 'S.W.A.T.' Wants To Break Ground, It'll Have To Try Harder

Shemar Moore plays <em>S.W.A.T.</em>'s lead after 20 years appearing on CBS shows like <em>The Young and the Restless</em> and <em>Criminal Minds</em>.
Monty Brinton
Shemar Moore plays S.W.A.T.'s lead after 20 years appearing on CBS shows like The Young and the Restless and Criminal Minds.

Daniel "Hondo" Harrelson has a way with words that borders on magic. At least, it seems that way after watching a few episodes of CBS's newest police drama reboot, S.W.A.T.

In the new show, beefcake star Shemar Moore is Hondo, a nonwhite guy (the show isn't more specific) from a tough neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles who winds up leading a Special Weapons and Tactics police unit. Every chance he gets, he defuses tension with suspects or crime victims (often people of color) by telling them about his hardscrabble background.

"When I was younger, I got into it with the cops," he tells a black kid — an innocent bystander recovering in the hospital after being mistakenly shot by a S.W.A.T. officer chasing a suspect. "I didn't do nothing wrong, but somehow I still ended up with a broken arm and my face down in the pavement." Later, a relative of the boy, who also heard the bedside speech, gives up information on a fugitive suspect.

In another scene, Hondo calms a single Latina mom who fears retribution from a criminal she once testified against. (He tells her how his mother once confronted a drug dealer in his neighborhood.) And when he needs help from a skeptical priest who knows Filipino immigrants used as drug mules, out comes a story about how Hondo didn't trust cops either, until one officer came along and changed his life.

It's a predictable device. But it also seems like an attempt by CBS to tweak the often rigid formula of its police procedural series, offering a hero different from the square-jawed white guys who normally lead the network's cop shows.

Hondo is a person of color from the neighborhood his S.W.A.T. team often works in. He encourages his officers to respect the residents instead of pushing them around. Two different episodes feature white officials who make racist assumptions about a crime, only to see Hondo figure out the truth by questioning the stereotypes.

Unfortunately, much of this feels like window dressing; especially because Hondo winds up in charge of his S.W.A.T. unit when the white guy who led the group was unfairly fired and the next officer in line for the job (yes, another white guy) was unfairly passed over.

The new S.W.A.T. is also pushing back against a lot of history — and I'm not just taking about the gung-ho 1975 TV series of the same name, or the humdrum 2003 movie with Samuel L. Jacksonand Colin Farrell. ESPN's Oscar-winning OJ: Made in America, along with a number of recent documentaries commemorating the L.A. riots, noted how tensions between police and communities of color were exacerbated by the creation of militarized S.W.A.T teams. So if CBS was going to reinvent a TV show lionizing S.W.A.T. in the age of Black Lives Matter, it makes sense they would center the series on a character whose very identity would subvert some of the unit's more controversial history in L.A.

That's an idea echoed by Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, who developed the reboot and serves an executive producer. During a news conference, he said, "I always felt as though someone who understood both sides of the Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter debate would make for a fascinating character. ... To marry that with an iconic title like S.W.A.T. just seemed to be, to me, a really, really great place to start."

The show also comes along at a time when CBS is facing questions about diversity. Last year, all its new fall shows starred white men and this fall, S.W.A.T. is the only series among six new shows with a nonwhite lead character.

Shemar Moore, who is biracial, serves as the series lead after 20 years appearing on CBS shows like The Young and the Restless and Criminal Minds. Thomas, who is African-American, developed the reboot along with executive producers Justin Lin (who directed threeFast & Furious movies) and Shawn Ryan (The Shield). So this is a show poised to break a lot of ground.

That's why it's so disappointing to see how rarely that happens in the first four episodes. Instead, we get a S.W.A.T. unit that inexplicably seems to do everything from questioning suspects in custody to interviewing witnesses in the field. They're super cops who can shoot three armed carjackers at once, and every episode seems to feature a scene with Moore shirtless, flashing his six-pack.

At a time when people are questioning the very systems of modern urban policing — arguing that they treat the poor and people of color unfairly, regardless of the officers' intent — a TV show with such a simplistic take on heroes and villains feels awkwardly out of step.

We'll see if audiences who are more familiar with CBS procedurals like NCIS and Criminal Minds can accept a more realistic police drama. But if S.W.A.T. wants to lead that charge, it will need to raise its game.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.