Walter Clark (Theo James) has a chip on his shoulder. Having been on his own, on the streets, from the age of nine, as he says “stealing food for him and his sister and then working two jobs,” he has a strong sense of what he wants and more importantly, what he feels is owed to him. He’s impulsive, angry, a bit arrogant, and worse absolutely ambitious. All of these qualities could make him the best cop in the NYPD, or it could make him the dirtiest. CBS’ Golden Boy pretty much lives or dies on Walter’s shoulders, and while James is a natural leading man, he is not enough to save this from the clunky tropes of a simple cop show trying too hard to be more meaningful than that. Not to mention how hard it can be to enjoy watching a show when you want to kick the main character’s cocky little teeth in.
The opening to Golden Boy drops the audience into a tense, panicky situation. Walter and his partner are covering a robbery in which they heard gunshots fired. Before they know it, they are fired upon, and A ends up in a standoff with the gunman who is using the victim as a human shield. Everything about the scene, from the speed at which the situation escalates, to the wild-eyed and physically violent response from Walter, even when he’s merely administering CPR, screams ‘This is important!’ in the audience’s faces. But it feels very fake, very forced, very much like you’re being told it’s important without really feeling the truth behind it.
There are moments in the scene that suggest something else at play, too. Arguably, it is just his adrenaline kicking in, fueling his fight, and allowing the aggression pent up inside him to be channeled to good use. However, frenetic angles and oddly woven shots that are meant to signify Walter’s point of view unnecessarily complicate, rather than just stylize. However, the feel for Golden Boy over all has a slight old-fashioned edge to it. Between the severely dated décor and the debonair way the detectives dress, Walter seems to have stepped out of a much simpler time. Rather than be jarring, it’s actually kind of romantic. Thinking of Golden Boy as a whole as a product of an earlier television time helps with the willingness to overlook flaws and suspend disbelief.
After the opening sequence, we immediately flash forward seven years to see Walter has climbed the ranks faster than anyone else, ever, and is standing comfortably in his new Police Chief Commissioner’s office. We hear how he got there in an expositional burst of dialogue, but rather than allowing the story to carry on from there, instead we are snapped all the way back to the past, presumably to actually watch him rise in the ranks, little by little. But how enjoyable can the journey be if we already know the destination, and all of the route stops along the way?
It’s a struggle to watch James in this role. He is such a likeable guy, but his character is every bit the “snot” Bonnie Somerville’s character accuses him of being. Unfortunately in the pilot James hasn’t gotten entirely comfortable with hiding his own British accent, let alone adopting a thick New York one. The result is a mangling that just falsely implies Walter is not even who he claims to be. There is something to be said for the ambiguity of a character struggling between a devious, “street” instinct and the desire to do the “right thing,” but Walt falls into the camp of abusing his power and puffing his chest out with a strong sense of entitlement, so there is not even any fun to be had with the idea of him as anti-hero. He’s the kind of cop that gives the hard workers a bad name. And he’s front and center here. He will rise to the ranks of highest officer, whether or not he deserves it or earns it or will be a positive force in the role. That’s just upsetting, fictional or not.
Walter and his violent CPR actually saved his partner’s life that day during the robbery, so he is allowed to choose where he goes upon his promotion. Cockily, he selects Homicide Task Force, despite the fact that he’ll be the most inexperienced one there and no one will want to work with someone so green. Ultimately paired up with the weary but wonderfully dry Don Owen (Chi McBride), Walter wastes no time in trying to go around seniority and protocol to assert his own authority and natural instincts. He “pays attention” to details, but in a job like Detective, that shouldn’t be remarkable, that should be a given. He also is too eager to be in on the action, even when it’s someone else’s department or jurisdiction, and he is too lucky in being able to successfully get answers out of suspects. He is also way too into the political side of things; he’d rather deal than do honest, pound the pavement police work. It’s hard to respect that, especially when countless crime shows before this one have taught us to be wary of those kinds of characters.
He’s shady, but so are the guys around him who want to use him to their advantage—from Detective Diaco (Holt McCallany) who happily offers up perks of the job for a taste of the media storm surrounding Walter, to Detective Arroyo (Kevin Alejandro) who wants to use Walter in his personal beef with Don. They puff him up; they set him up; they feed his ego; they offer a new kind of corruption for this age-old tale. But they also make this show completely unwatchable because they don’t inspire confidence or redeemability.
Additionally, the show ends up with another flash-forward, and a simulation of time passing via the Freedom Tower’s completion which just seems saccharine. All this does is attempt to wrap the story up in a bow while delivering more exposition on supposedly compelling stories to come in a last ditch, completely inorganic attempt to get you to want to tune in next week.
However, from that brief flash-forward, we know that Walter comes to genuinely admire or at least care about Don (he has a photo of him in his office, and see? We pay attention to details, too). We can only hope then that new father figure Don teaches or at least inspires him to become a better man—a man with less feelings of entitlement and one who is actually willing to earn what he is offered, even if it still comes quicker than it would for most. This so-called “Golden Boy” certainly has a lot to learn and a long way to go to become a man worthy of that Commissioner’s office. But it’s going to be a long road, probably the majority of that seven years, and honestly? We don’t have the desire to wait for him to grow up and straighten out, all while on the city’s payroll, watching someone who ultimately doesn’t deserve it get to the top.
Golden Boy premieres on CBS on February 26th 2013 at 10 p.m.
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