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'Golden Boy' charts cop's rise in NYPD from brash rookie to wiser vet

British newcomer Theo James has the challenge of playing the younger cop and the older police commissioner in a new CBS procedural about a flawed character.

January 05, 2013|By Steven Zeitchik
  • Theo James, left, Kevin Alejandro and Chi McBride in "Golden Boy" on CBS.
Theo James, left, Kevin Alejandro and Chi McBride in "Golden Boy"… (David M. Russell / CBS )

NEW YORK — There are large thematic ambitions to "Golden Boy," a new CBS series that tries to deepen the typical procedural with dysfunctional-family intrigue and police-department politics.

But as the show shoots an episode at a corner pub in downtown Manhattan, more immediate concerns press in. There is a female detective in a pantsuit who must throw a suspect to the ground, and a man dressed in a cook's uniform who must be thrown.

The actress, Bonnie Somerville, pursues the man from the pub's kitchen into the street, trailed closely by the 28-year-old British newcomer Theo James (playing the titular "Golden Boy") and veteran actor Chi McBride. Putting on a burst of speed, Somerville catches her target, hurls him to the pavement and demands he tell her the truth.

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"Did I do that too hard?" Somerville asks the extra after the director yells cut. The man shakes his head vigorously. The look in his eyes suggests otherwise.

Welcome to CBS' latest entry in the cop-show canon, a series that tries to push the genre into more complex, epic places while still retaining its essential conventions (a parade of anonymous victims, tidily solved crimes).

Executive produced by TV veteran Greg Berlanti ("Everwood") and cop-show writer Nick Wootton ("NYPD Blue," "Law & Order"), "Golden Boy," debuting Feb. 26 with a special preview before moving to its regular slot on March 8, tells of a talented but headstrong rookie police officer named Walter Clark (James). Early in the pilot we learn that Clark has had a meteoric ascent that, seven years later, at age 34, has him as the youngest police commissioner in New York City history. (A framing device has Clark looking back at his early years on the force via an interview with a reporter.)

We see Clark as he starts out in the homicide squad, solving the kind of television murders — those that require, say, running through restaurants — alongside a colorful group of officers played by Somerville, McBride and Kevin Alejandro.

As the detectives pursue their investigations, the show teases out character details for Clark and his associates, exploring the complicated negotiation between career advancement and good work. If CBS freshman hit "Elementary" tries to give the procedural faithful their fix of crafty thieves and demented serial killers with a Sherlock Holmes spin, "Golden Boy" tries it with operatic police-department machinations, "CSI" by way of Sidney Lumet.

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"This is about one person's journey, and the two dogs within him, one good and one evil," James said, echoing a line from the pilot.

Wootton said he created the show because he looked at the landscape of procedurals and felt they lacked the rich, flawed character that can elevate a series from pleasant diversion to something Shakespearean.

"This is a show about a character who can make mistakes, but you still forgive him those mistakes," he said.

"It really is a blending of my experience on 'NYPD Blue' and 'Law & Order.' We're doing procedural cases, but they aren't in our show unless there's an element that illuminates one of our characters."

In the pilot, for instance, a crime that involves a habitual drug user dovetails thematically with a plotline involving Walt's sister's boyfriend, a small-time drug dealer. Many of the story lines, it should be said, feature some colorful New York staples — working-class cops, messy but loving families, convincing accents.

Clark is presented in two phases of life — the brash young officer who wants to rise through the ranks and the more hard-bitten veteran who knows the toll that can take.

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That's an acting challenge, acknowledges James, who mostly has done British television and small movie parts. He and his colleagues also hope it makes for a more fraught, interesting show.

"The nice thing about the setup is that you don't know if Clark is a good guy or a bad one," Somerville said. "You just know you're going on a journey with him."

Clark isn't the only compelling character. McBride's Owen, a wise but burnt-out detective with whom Clark is initially partnered, adds a subtle dimension. The actor, best known for his role as Principal Stephen Harper on David E. Kelley's "Boston Public," found in his on-screen persona elements of his own life: Twenty years ago, he notes, he too was feeling burnt out, working at the phone company fielding customer complaints. He found himself recharged when he took up acting.

Though "Golden Boy" has been ordered for just 13 episodes, there's an enjoyably languorous quality to the larger story line. "It progresses at a quick enough pace to keep you interested but not so quick that it feels unbelievable and trite," McBride said. "And it does it in some pretty interesting locations."

A few hours after the Somerville throwdown, the production moves down the street to 7B, a local biker bar that feels as though it has been around since Robert Wagner's mayoralty.

James looks at his surroundings with an eager gaze.

"I think this was in a Paul Newman movie," he said with a kind of contained British enthusiasm. "It feels exciting. We can say something big about these New York characters in places that feel very New York."

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

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