TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Tonight's CBS premiere is a crime drama called "Tommy," starring Edie Falco as the new police chief for the LAPD. Our TV critic, David Bianculli, says the show is more significant than at first it might appear, especially as an indicator of how the commercial broadcast networks are trying to redefine themselves to viewers. Here's David's review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Back in the days when a handful of broadcast networks ruled TV, the police chief in most cop shows was a supporting character. He usually yelled a lot at the hero and was an obstacle to get around and always, always was a man.
You could rely on that, just as you could rely on the hero to survive, to solve the crime of the week, and never to change. Kojak in Season 5 still sucked that lollipop as he did in Season 1 to curb his smoking habit. Mannix never evolved, never changed - in TV back then, almost no one did.
But the television landscape is wildly different in the year 2020. Cable and streaming dramas have taught us that even heroes of weekly series could be deeply flawed and complicated. They've also embraced even more heavily the novelistic approach to weekly series that didn't begin in primetime until the likes of NBC's "Hill Street Blues." How is a broadcast network drama of today supposed to deal with all that?
CBS has dealt with it the best, first with "The Good Wife" and currently with the supernatural series "Evil," Both of them created by Michelle and Robert King. These are shows that are very smart and commendably unpredictable. And they prove that broadcast TV, despite tighter standards of censorship and more of a need to reach a large audience, can still field a winning team in this increasingly competitive TV game.
With "Tommy," the cop drama premiering tonight, CBS is trying something new - to hedge its bets and try to appeal to two audience segments at once. One is the old-fashioned older viewer, the type who eats up the weekly procedurals of the "Law & Order" and "NCIS" franchises. The other is the cable and streaming fan who wants both its plots and characters to be more complicated.
For the "CSI"-type loyalists, "Tommy" serves up and solves a case each week. But there also are ongoing storylines involving the police chief's interactions with colleagues and family members. Some of these interactions are unusual because the new police chief, in this case, is a woman - the first ever to serve in Los Angeles and appointed, in part, because her predecessor was caught in a major sexual harassment scandal. He still surfaces from time to time, played by Corbin Bernsen from "L.A. Law."
But the new boss, who's not the same as the old boss, is played by the wonderful actress Edie Falco. Edie Falco is one of cable TV's biggest and most defining stars and has triumphed by playing a series of strong, complex women - a prison guard in HBO's "Oz," a mobster's wife in HBO's "The Sopranos" and a drug-addicted nurse in Showtime's "Nurse Jackie" - three great shows, three great, increasingly central performances.
And now, while most actors and producers are migrating from broadcast TV to streaming or cable, Edie Falco is going in the other direction. And she arrives on CBS portraying a woman who maintains Falco's streak of playing noteworthy multi-dimensional characters.
In "Tommy," the scripts aren't fantastic, but Falco is. Her character, Abigail Thomas - Tommy, the show's title, is her nickname - has personal issues. For one thing, she's moved from New York and now lives in the same city as her long-estranged daughter, who surprises her by showing up at police headquarters with her own daughter in tow. Tommy's daughter is played by Olivia Lucy Phillip.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TOMMY")
EDIE FALCO: (As Abigail Thomas) Tell me the next time you're coming downtown.
OLIVIA LUCY PHILLIP: (As Kate Jones) I tried to call you.
FALCO: (As Abigail Thomas) I've just been - you know what? I'm even going to say it.
PHILLIP: (As Kate Jones) I know you're busy.
FALCO: (As Abigail Thomas) Can we just stipulate that I'm a terrible mother? I've always been a terrible mother.
PHILLIP: (As Kate Jones) You were a terrible mother.
FALCO: (As Abigail Thomas) I was not a terrible mother. I was a B - B-minus.
PHILLIP: (As Kate Jones) I don't even know why I keep trying.
FALCO: (As Abigail Thomas) Look. Kate, you left home for reasons that had nothing to do with me...
PHILLIP: (As Kate Jones) I left to live with dad.
FALCO: (As Abigail Thomas) ...Or your dad. How is Madison doing?
PHILLIP: (As Kate Jones) You can't just change the subject like that.
FALCO: (As Abigail Thomas) This is police headquarters. I can do whatever I want to do. You want to yell at me, invite me to dinner.
PHILLIP: (As Kate Jones) She sucks her thumb.
FALCO: (As Abigail Thomas) Well, you sucked your thumb.
PHILLIP: (As Kate Jones) Not at age 12. I brought her downtown to go shopping. And I thought, since I was a neighborhood, maybe you'd want to see your granddaughter more than once a year.
FALCO: (As Abigail Thomas) You left, Kate. You left. This is the relationship you wanted. My mother didn't get out of bed after my father died. I was 5. You have idea how hard life can be.
BIANCULLI: That mother-daughter relationship is the most interesting part of Tommy's private life as it evolves over the next few episodes, and I find that interesting because there are other issues that "Tommy," the show and the character, reveal in the opening episode. Giving a speech at a public event, she veers from her prepared remarks to introduce herself more candidly.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TOMMY")
FALCO: (As Abigail Thomas) OK. You know what? I'm going to - I'm a cop. I'm a woman. I am a gay woman. And so - I'm going to put my speech over here. All right. So let's talk about how it feels to be not only the first female chief of police in Los Angeles, but also how it feels to be a gay woman in America in the year 2020, who also happens to be the chief of police.
BIANCULLI: For CBS, that's an unusual plot twist and character reveal. But series creator Paul Attanasio, who also got creator credit on "Homicide: Life On The Street," strengthens it by not stressing it. It's part of Tommy's character, but it's not the central part. And the very fact that it isn't signals a different kind of progress. With "Tommy," CBS is trying to be conservative and modern at the same time, and just may pull it off.
GROSS: David Bianculli is editor of the website TV Worth Watching and a professor of television history at Rowan University. "Tommy" premieres tonight on CBS. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with the filmmakers of the Oscar-nominated documentary "American Factory," or with journalist Eilene Zimmerman, whose memoir is about discovering her ex-husband's secret drug addiction, or with David Quammen about the coronavirus and other pathogens that have spread from animals to humans, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.