Theo James, left, Kevin Alejandro and Chi McBride star in "Golden… (David M. Russell / CBS )
Will someone please just write a show for Chi McBride?
In work as varied as "Pushing Daisies" and "Human Target," McBride has become a go-to guy for ballast-providing second lead — tough but tolerant, wise in that one-line-delivering sort of way that can brighten up even the sludgiest scene, like a Matisse in a small room with limited exposure.
But how long can the man be expected to serve as accent wall?
He's at it again in the new CBS cop drama "Golden Boy," which premieres Tuesday. The network best known for by-the-numbers procedurals including "NCIS" and the "CSI" franchises would like everyone to know it is trying something new with "Golden Boy," an ambitious character-driven drama over-enamored from the get-go with its tricky structure and coy premise. Jumping around in time, it tells the story of how the (very) fictional Walter William Clark Jr. (Theo James) became New York City's youngest police commissioner.
PHOTOS: Celebrity portraits by The Times
We meet Clark in a shootout scene so absurdly staged that one would be forgiven for assuming that "Golden Boy" is about an actor playing a cop. But no, the events depicted are real, at least within this fictional universe, and after Clark single-handedly shoots a bunch of bad guys, saves a hostage and resuscitates his wounded partner, he is given a medal and promised a job of his choosing.
He chooses homicide investigations, where, predictably, no one is happy to embrace one so young. Neither the department's alpha dog (Kevin Alejandro), his loyal if slightly sympathetic partner (Bonnie Somerville) nor Clark's new partner (McBride), two years away from retirement and no longer impressed by showboating.
Clark, of course, would rather be partnered with the alpha dog, which just goes to show How Much He Has to Learn. If we are not clear, by McBride's presence and performance, that he will be the main reason Clark, flashing forward, now sits behind Teddy Roosevelt's former desk, well, the brand new Commissioner Clark tells us so, in an equally absurd first-day interview with a reporter played by Richard Kind, another man who deserves his own show. (Maybe he and McBride could do a buddy drama for HBO? Or USA?)
It's always gratifying to see writers bold enough to experiment with narrative, but flashbacks and flash-forwards are a dicey business, and "Golden Boy" is not aided by its lead, who spends most of the pilot looking intensely at the floor just behind the camera in order to offer us a 3/4 profile that someone, apparently, thinks exudes Strong Emotion.
Creator Nicholas Wootton has said he was influenced by "The Social Network" and there is something of Jesse Eisenberg's shark-eyed blankness in James' performance, but the passive-aggressiveness of a college geek simply doesn't work for a cop. And with those cheekbones and that chin, James too often appears to be posing for a Calvin Klein ad.
VIDEO: Upcoming TV shows
Also, he looks ridiculous aged up in flash-forward scenes, graying at the temples and limping around, dropping hints about some big shootout and the loss of those he loved.
Indeed, if early episodes are any indication, "Golden Boy" takes a very melodramatic view of "character-driven drama." As a character, Clark is overly embellished in contradictory ways — abandoned by abusive parents, he developed street smarts while supporting himself and his troubled younger sister (yes, he has a troubled young sister), but he can't see what the rest of us register at a glance, like trying to show up your fellow detectives is never a good idea.
In the middle of it all is McBride, doing what he always does — hitting his marks, nailing his lines and infusing his scenes with the sort of textured personal and thematic conflicts that are, no doubt, what Wootton had in mind when he conceived the show. Unfortunately, McBride is the only one able, or allowed, to do more than strike one-dimensional character poses.
Which is a shame. CBS does have its fair share of highly successful, fairly workmanlike procedurals, but it also has "The Good Wife," which created the template for stories that balance rich character and compelling plot.
"Golden Boy" could have done that as well. But it doesn't.
When: 10 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-PG-LV (may be unsuitable for young children, with advisories for coarse language and violence)
PHOTOS: Behind the scenes of 'Downton Abbey'
VIDEO: Winter TV preview
PHOTOS: Violence in TV shows