New CBS drama ‘The Red Line’ explores (but doesn’t excuse) a Chicago police shooting

Nina Metz
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Last October, when former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was found guilty in the shooting death of Laquan McDonald, the cast and crew of the new CBS drama “The Red Line” were busy filming a similar — if fictional — story of a fatal police shooting in Chicago.

The limited eight-episode series premieres Sunday. A convenience store robbery sets the narrative in motion: A bystander to the crime — a black man wearing a hoodie, picking up milk on his way home from work — is shot and killed by a white officer who is the first to arrive at the scene.

The emotional aftermath of that shooting is explored from various angles and forms the basis of the show, which promises to be something quite different from the Dick Wolf procedural world of a series like NBC’s “Chicago P.D.”

The entirety of “The Red Line” was filmed in Chicago late last year and it comes from two Chicago theater veterans, playwright Caitlin Parrish and director Erica Weiss, who have worked as a team since meeting at DePaul University. They are both credited as creators and showrunners on the CBS series, which is their first joint foray into television. Parrish is based in Los Angeles these days, where her TV writing credits include “Supergirl” and “Under the Dome”; Weiss has remained in Chicago where she continues to direct theater, most recently “Twilight Bowl” at the Goodman Theatre.

Last fall, Parrish made a short trip back to town and met with Weiss at the Chicago Studio City soundstage on the West Side where the series was based. Sitting in the living room set of one of the show’s characters, the pair talked about the surreal experience of working on “The Red Line” as the Van Dyke trial was unfolding — and ultimately decided.

“The writers room in Los Angeles actually watched the Van Dyke verdict together,” Parrish said. “We have a number of Chicago writers working on the show and we were following the case very closely, not only for professional reasons but personal reasons.”

According to Weiss, the guilty verdict did end up shaping their approach. “We’re not interested in making a show about Jason Van Dyke, he’s not a character we want to spend time with,” she clarified. “But that being said, I think a world in which a Chicago police officer can be convicted in a fatal shooting of an unarmed black man — that raises the stakes. If prison time is a reality for Jason Van Dyke, then maybe that’s possible for the cop in our show, Paul Evans.

“Because in a pre-Van Dyke era,” she said, “the odds were, nothing’s going to happen to Paul.”

From stage to screen: The show’s origins first took root with the 2011 off-Loop play from Parrish and Weiss called “A Twist of Water,” which imagined the diverging lives of a gay white father and his adopted black daughter grappling with a recent death in their family.

That play would become the basis for “The Red Line,” starring “ER” alum Noah Wyle as the father and Aliyah Royale (who competed as a designer on the tween-focused spin-off “Project Runway: Threads”) as the teenage daughter.

It is his husband — her father — who is shot and killed in that convenience store by Officer Evans, played by “Shameless” alum Noel Fisher.

The world of this small grieving family is complicated further when Wyle’s character begins a tentative flirtation with a new love interest and Royale’s character decides, for the first time, to seek out her birth mother (played by Emayatzy Corinealdi), who has her own family and political aspirations that she’s juggling.

Yet another storyline concerns Fisher’s cop and the emotional complications that befall his personal and professional life in the wake of his fatal shooting.

The many overlapping storyline formula is what the show has in common with a series like NBC’s “This Is Us,” and longtime TV veteran Sunil Nayar, who is a showrunner on “The Red Line” as well, acknowledged the comparison: “I think that makes sense, because they both deal with different storylines that continue to intersect. Certainly people have brought up that comparison and it’s the same idea that both shows are serialized — you can’t just dip in and watch Episode 4 and understand exactly what’s going on.”

Notably, the police shooting angle wasn’t in the original play. It is the kind of big dramatic addition that might deepen the storytelling in meaningful ways. Or it might potentially overpower the show’s other threads entirely.

Degrees of difficulty: Preston Beckman, a former broadcast network executive who now blogs about the business of television at Revenge of the Masked Scheduler, made this observation about the show: “What might hold it back it that it’s one of those ‘thing on a thing on a thing’ shows” — the type of project that he remembers a network president once describe as “adding too many degrees of difficulty.”

Can a “This Is Us”-style family drama also support the weight of a police shooting narrative? Can CBS — a network known for its more easily classifiable procedurals such as “NCIS” — entice audiences to a more complicated portrait of law enforcement than the network’s usual fare?

“It’s a new kind of show for CBS, so the risk they’re taking on the show is not an easy one to take,” said Nayar, who described “The Red Line’s” creative approach and the network’s more typical formula as a “marriage of two different philosophies.”

“It’s the kind of show that a lot of people were surprised wasn’t on cable,” he said, “and to CBS’s credit, they picked it up.”

In a surprise move, CBS announced that “The Red Line” will air two episodes a week back-to-back, meaning the finale will air just one month after the show premieres.

According to CBS, this doubling up of episodes is an effort to “eventize” the series and “try something unique with two-hour blocks over four weeks,” said Noriko Kelley, who heads up program planning and scheduling at the network. The more pressing question may be: Is this the kind of show that can compete head-to-head with the final season of HBO’s “Game of Thrones”?

A skeptic might wonder if “The Red Line” is getting a fair shot at drawing viewers, or if CBS is burning off a show it finds somewhat confounding from a marketing standpoint. Even for original shows on its streaming site CBS All Access, the network generally releases one new episode a week. If nothing else, “The Red Line’s” scheduling is a departure from the CBS norm.

But then, so is the show itself.

A city divided: “Chicago, for all of its many wonders, is still the most segregated metropolis in America,” said Parrish. “And the idea of a gay white father and a black daughter in the same house seemed like a really interesting opportunity to examine the two Americas that are forced to live side by side, based on race.”

“Or, not side by side, in the case of Chicago especially,” said Weiss, “but separated and connected by the Red Line. So there’s our metaphor.”

Parrish: “It is a city separated by red-lining.”

Weiss: “When you ride the Red Line ‘L’ north to south or vice versa, the segregated divide becomes obvious.”

On the show, Wyle’s character lives in Edgewater. Royale’s biological mother lives in Chatham. And Fisher’s cop lives in Beverly.

The show’s creators understand “The Red Line’s” premise has the potential to get under the skin of audiences across the board.

“I would say that the first pitfall is that any audience member watching might think what Paul did wasn’t quite so bad — that if it was an honest mistake, then was it really an unforgivable sin? And for us, the answer is yes,” said Parrish “But we think that ultimately humanizing Paul is essential for understanding him.”

Weiss’ take: “As political and as charged as this show can be, we’re not polemicists so much as storytellers. People are complicated, so to me the idea of humanizing anyone is the task of telling a story.”

“And I would argue that it’s far more dangerous to dismiss Paul as a sociopath,” Parrish added. “I come from a family of white cops in Florida, and they are not sociopaths. They are profoundly more thorny and complicated than that. And I disagree with them and I resent them and I feel great fear and some shame for some of the things that group carries. But I also know them to be human.

“And I think, as far as the show, there’s a difference between humanizing and excusing.”

Part of the “The Red Line’s” focus, Parrish said, is about “the PR machine that’s involved in cases like this. We go into: What are the connections and the nepotism and the political alliances that allow this to continue even when it’s glaringly obvious to a great many people that an injustice has occurred? Frankly, we can humanize him and condemn him in the same breath. … But we can think he’s guilty and human at the same time.”

“And I personally don’t mind if some audience members don’t think he’s guilty, either,” Weiss said.

“A lot of audiences members won’t,” Parrish replied.

‘All in this together’: Parrish and Weiss have collaborated together in Chicago for nearly two decades and they said it was important to them that the TV series be based here. “When we sat down and wrote the pilot, it had to be so set in Chicago that if it ever got made, they would have to film it here,” Weiss said.

What were they interested in capturing?

“The city of neighborhoods and the specificity of the architecture that you can’t just get in B-roll,” said Weiss. “The mood. The Midwesterness of it all.”

“The tribal aspect of the city,” Parrish added. “That you can go your entire life and maybe only live in one kind of neighborhood and see one kind of person of a specific ethnicity or religion — but that all of these neighborhoods are part of the same ecosystem and are connected, whether they want to admit it or not. That I find fascinating, because it does create a sense of: We are all in this together, even if we hate each other.”

There are other small but recognizably Chicago details.

“We absolutely show dibs,” Parrish said. “And we tried desperately to get a Malort reference in there but we couldn’t make it work. But just the idea of what it is to be in (crappy) winter weather that only Chicagoans can understand. The tremendous pride Chicagoans take in this city despite the cold, despite the violence. I think there’s a generally feeling here of, we have something to prove —that we have misperceptions to correct.”

The cast of “The Red Line” features a number of Chicago theater actors, including Elizabeth Laidlaw, McKenzie Chinn, Caroline Neff, Samuel Taylor, Peter Moore, Phyllis Griffin and Michael Patrick Thornton (“Private Practice”), the latter of whom plays Paul Evans’ brother, a former cop who uses a wheelchair after being shot in the line of duty. Though TV and film projects often cast abled actors in disabled roles, that is not the case here; Thornton uses a wheelchair in real life.

Optimism: According to Weiss, “This show needs to reach a broad audience.

“That does not have to mean that we subsume our politics to both sides,” she said, “but frankly we work with people and talk with people who do see both sides. And I think it’s important to bring those people in and to make them feel welcome when watching the show. Because otherwise I don’t know how we’re going to fix anything.”

“The thing that I keep coming back to,” said Parrish, “and the thing that interests me as a writer is: How do you move on from the worst thing that has happened to you? I have always been fascinated by the process required to triumph over grief — and not just survive, but thrive.

“You see this family, disparate at first, heal through connection — that for me is really potent dramatically. And it also speaks to the larger story about what we’re trying to say about the city of Chicago. That there have been untold instances of violence and hate in this city’s history. But what if the city could come together, ward to ward, North Side to South Side?

“We’ve never been particularly interested in grief porn,” she added. “And as horrific and tragic as the inciting incident of this show is, it has to be about hope.

“Erica and I are optimists, despite the world around us. And I think optimism at this point is a fairly radical act.”

“The Red Line” airs at 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. Sundays on CBS.