If you’re going to be a cop show at this moment in time, when TV is crowded with badges, perps, bulletproof vests, and sugar donuts, you’ve got to stand out. That doesn’t mean you have to feature a charming detective with special powers, or the gorgeous coastlines of Hawaii, or Sherlock Freaking Holmes. Only the networks think that. It just means that, like on “Southland,” you need to have scripts that aren’t riddled with clichéd precinct talk and characters — both the officers and the criminals-of-the-week — who are flawed, conflicted human beings.
“Golden Boy,” which premieres Tuesday night at 10 on Channel 4, is halfway there. The new CBS procedural has a few outstanding elements that work right away. Set in New York, the show revolves around the career of a 27-year-old cop named William Clark who takes down two gunmen, saves his partner, and becomes the media’s “Hero Cop.” His reward is that he can write his own ticket, so he chooses the homicide department, even though he has no experience. He has a big head, though, having bought into too much of his own press. He is partnered with frumpy veteran Detective Owen (Chi McBride), despite his wish to work with the splashier Detective Arroyo (Kevin Alejandro).
The show, from Greg Berlanti (“Dawson’s Creek,” “Arrow”) and Nicolas Wootton (“NYPD Blue,” “Chuck”), does a good job of making Clark both appealing and overly ambitious. And, as Clark, Theo James (a Brit with a flawless American accent) fleshes out all of that ambiguity. You want to like him, and he is likable, but he succumbs to some unattractive methods in his hunger for success. This is the strength of “Golden Boy” — that the title is both truthful and sarcastic. Owen sees the potential beneath Clark’s ego, and he tries to push Clark to make the right choices in the sardonic but wise way that McBride fans know well. Clark is the only caretaker of his teen sister, Agnes (Stella Maeve), a fact that makes Owen even more sympathetic to Clark.
Their partnership and the more fraught relationship between Clark and Arroyo are interesting hooks. Also interesting, if risky, is the show’s time-shifting format. What we learn a few minutes into “Golden Boy,” in a flash forward to “7 years from now,” is that Clark will go on to become the youngest police commissioner in the history of New York City. We repeatedly jump ahead to see him at age 34, answering an interviewer’s questions about his fast journey to the top. We see he has a limp, and we see a photo of Owen on his desk. In other words, the show spoils itself, more or less, so that we know the golden boy will not fall. Will that take tension out of the series, as it moves weekly through Clark’s ascent?
That’s a question that will also present itself regarding the forthcoming series about Norman Bates from “Psycho,” A&E’s “Bates Motel.”
What doesn’t work at all in the first two episodes of “Golden Boy” is the more familiar procedural material. The crimes of the week are just bland, late “Law & Order”-level stories. It must be hard to write procedurals these days, since it seems as though every possible twist on the homicide case has already been done. But a show such as “The Closer” managed to keep the crimes vital by hiring strong actors-of-the-week and making their characters more than types. Perhaps, with time, the writers will be able to devote more attention to that critical component. The cops on “Golden Boy” have too much dimension to set them against such a flat background.