61st Street Risks Becoming a Parody of Itself (S1E1, “Pilot”)

Moses and Joshua stand on the street in the 61st Street pilot
Photo Credit: Chuck Hodes/AMC

The following contains spoilers for 61st Street S1E1, “Pilot” (written by Peter Moffat and directed by Marta Cunningham).

It’s probably best not to look for a message in 61st Street and rather just go along for the ride. By the end of the pilot, Moses Johnson (Tosin Cole) is being hunted by the police and his mother tells him to run. We want him to get away, too, even if he did kill Rossi (Patrick Mulvey). He didn’t mean to, and he’s a good kid who should have a bright future ahead of him.

He doesn’t anymore, though, and of course he won’t get away. I was a bit surprised he hadn’t been caught yet at the end of Episode 1, at which point he is still hiding in a dumpster. The implausibility of escape in the real world notwithstanding, there is the fact that the 61st Street pilot also spends a good part of its hour introducing us to Franklin Roberts (Courtney B. Vance), who is a public defender, and one has to imagine he’ll end up being Moses’s defense attorney when push comes to shove.

Franklin, wearing a suit with a loosened tie, makes a plea to a judge
Photo Credit: James Washington/AMC

I can’t really see any way out for Moses after the events of Episode 1. The cops in 61st Street are straight-up villainous, without any redeeming qualities—except for Michael Rossi, who we get to know briefly in the pilot, almost as though he’ll be a protagonist in this story, but really it’s just to make us feel like it’s a shame that the only good cop in Chicago is the one who got killed. His partner, Johnny Logan (Mark O’Brien), seems decent enough but loses all of my sympathy as he yells at Joshua (Bentley Green) in the interview room. And Lieutenant Brannigan is such a garbage human being that even the familiar face of Holt McCallany, who portrays him, couldn’t mitigate against that impression.

The wretched corruption of the police almost feels necessary to this story, though, in terms of establishing solidarity with our principle protagonist, Moses Johnson. We don’t actually get to know him all that well in the pilot, beyond the fact that he seems very friendly and is good at track, but his decision to run from the police does make a lot more sense if we’re thinking about how terrible they all are and how they won’t even consider that young Joshua actually was just walking home.

Yet the decision to run even after Rossi has him cornered is undeniably stupid, particularly if Moses had this sort of thing about the police in mind, as it wouldn’t have been surprising if the officer had shot him dead as a result of this, were it anyone besides Rossi. Plus, it’s frankly hard to defend someone who is running away from the police and pushes a cop, even if cops aren’t to be trusted. It’s just not smart, and if 61st Street were a deeper show, it would be asking us to interrogate whether and to what extent foolishness can and should be taken as an excuse.

I might be swayed (and you might be swayed) to think that Moses deserves forgiveness and that circumstances conspired to put him in this position, but we already know that the justice system isn’t prone to decide things that way. In case we needed reminding of this, the 61st Street pilot shows Franklin’s pleas for leniency for a client who stole some baby formula falling on deaf ears.

What makes a show like The Wire so compelling is that those on the side of the law are fleshed out human beings with motives that can be sympathized with, as are the criminals in the story. Through its first episode, 61st Street has nothing along these lines to offer. Nothing seems ambiguous—the system is straightforwardly unjust and Moses stands no chance. The system is straightforwardly unjust because Moses stands no chance, sure, but this doesn’t quite make a compelling drama either.

Lt. Brannigan in a bulletproof vest, talking sternly to two other cops
Photo Credit: Chuck Hodes/AMC

The fact is that there is no way it would be plausible for Moses Johnson to avoid prison if we’re thinking about the real world. He didn’t murder Rossi on purpose, but he was fleeing the police and pushed Rossi into that piece of rebar nonetheless. It’s only too easy to imagine all of those in the world who would argue then that this question about motive becomes a difference without a distinction.

Thus 61st Street has to be enjoyed at the level of fantasy because it takes a flight of fancy to imagine that things might work out for Moses at all, and without that possibility, the show lacks felt stakes. Indeed, the hopelessness of the situation risks pushing the tone of the series into farce, as in the pilot when things come to a head and the cops bust in the door, plant drugs, and arrest Moses’s mother. It’s realistic in the sense that things like this happen and we know they happen, and yet is so overblown as to feel outlandish.

The pilot of 61st Street is gripping and has left me wanting to know what will happen next, but when it comes to raising a question about criminal justice, the show begins to feel more like a parody of its genre than a compelling entry into it. The cops are cartoon villains and the gang members are painted with broad strokes lacking nuance. Moses seems naïve to have confronted them at all.

If any message is emerging by the end of the pilot, it’s that there is no justice. It’s not even possible. Franklin’s career has been a waste of time and he hasn’t done any good by trying to help people within the system. Rather than the Johnson case providing the impetus to a last hurrah where he finally does something that makes a difference, I find myself hoping 61st Street sees Franklin operating outside the law to help Moses try to get away. That feels like a fantasy, too, but at least there would be some novelty in that story to make it a fantasy worth watching, even if such an attempt would feel almost as hopeless as fighting the charges. If instead 61st Street becomes a courtroom drama, it’s all too easy to see how it will be bound to fall into worn-out tropes lacking in tension, which may be entertaining enough but will hardly be memorable.

We’ll have to keep watching to see which way it goes.

Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain is Executive Editor of TV Obsessive. He struggles with authority, including his own.

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