Television review

CBS’ ‘Golden Boy’ is an interesting good cop, bad cop tale

Crime doesn’t pay? Look at CBS’ prime-time lineup, which features 11 cop dramas plus the true-crime 48 Hours. If America ever went straight, CBS would have to corner the world’s cubic-zirconium market to feed all its new home-shopping shows.

So there’s a certain amount of understandable dread at the announcement that CBS is adding a 12th cop show. With the network already teeming with New York cops, Hawaiian cops, ex-psychic cops software-nerd cops and even out-of-copyright British literary cops (yes, CBS runs through policemen at such a breathtaking clip that even Sherlock Holmes had to be brought out of retirement for Elementary), what’s left? Robot cops? Caveman cops? Wait. Forget I wrote that. I can practically hear the pitch for CSI: Bedrock being made now. (“So one night when Betty is working vice as an undercover hooker ...”)

Happily, Golden Boy not only manages a fairly original take on cop shows but actually turns out to be surprisingly intriguing. It employs the same framing-flashback device CBS uses on its sitcom How I Met Your Mother, with a new New York City police commissioner — the youngest in city history — recounting his legendary career to an interviewer, starting with a shootout seven years earlier in which he killed two armed robbers, then saved the life of his badly wounded partner.

But the supercop narrative quickly derails into something far more interesting. Like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in which an Old West lawman’s heroic stand against a bandit was dissected from multiple (often unflattering) perspectives, Golden Boy examines the gaps between image and reality as well as the possibility that what looks like heroism from one angle might appear to be careless arrogance from another.

British actor Theo James ( Downton Abbey fans may have caught a glimpse of his face peeking out from under a pile of Edwardian ruffles during the first season) plays Commissioner Walter Clark, whose abrupt rise in the department was fueled not only by his excellent policing skills but his canny instinct for self-promotion.

His tale begins to unfold when his interviewer asks, “Are you a master politician or just a savvy cop?” Far from offended, Clark replies with a parable he heard from one of his first police partners: “Inside every man there are two dogs fighting. One’s good, one’s evil. You know who wins? The one you feed the most.”

Unraveling the answer is the heart of Golden Boy. Clark’s robbery heroics win him a detective’s shield and a spot on the homicide squad, where his impressive investigative instincts are overshadowed by his ambitious self-approbation. “Is this the kind of detective you’re gonna be, working the brass, working the press?” asks his scornful new partner Don Owen (Chi McBride, Pushing Daisies), a veteran hoping to coast two years until he can retire. Other detectives are even more hostile, including one (Tony Arroyo, True Blood) who fights dirty.

Golden Boy gains speed and power with almost every scene, as the characters develop and the squad room’s bodies (metaphorical and otherwise) come unburied. Even without the perhaps too-generous foreshadowing supplied by the show’s framing device, it’s obvious that the good cops and bad cops are on a collision course. A lot harder to divine: Which are which. Sticking around for the answers seems well worth the time.

Read more Glenn Garvin: On TV stories from the Miami Herald

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