The first thing the viewer will notice about the new CBS series Blue Bloods (Fridays, 10 EDT) is its impressive cast: Tom Selleck, Donnie Wahlberg, Bridget Moynahan, and Len Cariou lead a very talented group of performers. But what makes the show really worth watching is its sophisticated attitude toward the police: in theory they are admirable, and to a great degree in practice as well, but the exceptions are often disastrous.
The opening scenes of the pilot episode establish a strongly positive view of the police, conveying a sense that the great majority go into the job with some amount of idealism, even if the system is prone to corruption. We meet the Reagan family, a multigenerational clan of New York City police officers, currently led by Police Chief Frank Reagan (Selleck). His son, Detective Danny Reagan (Wahlberg), is called away from a graduation ceremony for new police officers, where his Harvard-educated brother is one of the new-minted coppers.
All of this sets up the ideal against which the show then compares the reality of policing a major American city. The case to which Danny Reagan is called concerns a daylight kidnapping of a young girl off a New York City street. Reagan and partner Demarcus King (Flex Alexander) follow up on a meager allotment of clues, pressed hard by a pair of urgent deadlines: the awareness that the odds of recovering a kidnap victim unharmed raise exponentially with each passing hour, and, perhaps equally important in their minds, pressure from the mayor and other political figures to avert the inevitable public relations nightmare a killing would create.
Thus the pilot foregrounds the problems of politics, public skepticism toward the department, ethnic unrest, and police brutality. The latter is manifested in a scene in which Danny Reagan repeatedly holds a suspect’s head underwater in a toilet, in order to force him to reveal where the man has hidden the kidnapped girl. Reagan succeeds in getting the information, but at the cost of jeopardizing the possibility of convicting the man in a court of law because the coerced confession taints all evidence that arises from it.
In addition, new officer and Harvard grad Jamie Reagan is recruited into a top-secret investigation of an allegedly corrupt and violent group within the NYPD called the Blue Templar–who allegedly killed Jamie’s brother Joe. It sounds rather highly fanciful to me, but I’m no expert on secret societies, so I guess I can’t complain.
Some critics and viewers may inevitably worry about identity-politics implications, and there are some things in Blue Bloods to ponder in that regard. I don’t find the show to suffer from any clear bias toward either side of what passes for a political spectrum these days. The kidnapper is a Catholic who reportedly performs a perverse first communion ceremony during his killings. Yet the show doesn’t suggest that Christianity is for weirdos–the Reagans say grace before their Sunday dinner together, and it comes off as a sincere and appealing moment.
That dinner becomes very raucous shortly thereafter, as Danny and his sister, Erin, a public prosecutor, argue about whether torture can ever be justified, a debate which the rest of the family joins with the expected level of passion. The side arguing that whatever might save an innocent person’s life is justified seems to me to win the debate–rather surprisingly, given the way the subject is usually treated in the media.
The scene is emblematic of the show’s refreshing approach: balanced and realistic about the temptations of power, while recognizing that the rules shouldn’t serve the interests of wrongdoers and neglect to protect the innocents. Societies give great power to the police, out of necessity, and as Lord Acton noted, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The pilot episode of Blue Bloods dramatized this dilemma admirably.
The episode did very well with audiences on its premiere night two weeks ago, with Blue Bloods finishing as the second-highest rated new show, after Hawaii Five-0, garnering 13.0 million viewers.
Episode 2, “Samaritan,” which premiered last week, follows up on the pilot episode’s themes adds an interesting, broader look at how the justice system puts citizens in an awful dilemma by claiming a monopoly on the use of force, denying people the right to protect themselves from violence.
The episode deals with the search for and prosecution of a man who shot one of a gang of robbers and rapists on a subway train. The shooter and thugs are both of the same ethnic group, which removes that element from the story and puts the focus where it is most important: on the vigilante aspect of the story and the way the system punishes people who protect themselves and others.
The latter is obviously a perversion of justice, but the producers wisely refrain from pushing the viewer to a particular conclusion about it. Instead, the let the viewer draw their own conclusion after another of the post-supper debates among the Reagan family that seem likely to become a regular occurrence in the series. One thing, however, is made very clear: the laws of the state and city put the “vigilante” in an impossible position. The city’s “no tolerance” gun laws made this honest citizen a criminal by making it illegal for him to do what any sensible person would strive to do: make sure that he can protect himself and other from violence.
The viewer is led to understand this truth but is allowed to draw their own conclusions about whether the trade off is worth making. As Benjamin Franklin said, those willing to trade liberty for security will have neither, but “Samaritan” refrains from forcing that conclusion on the audience. Bringing it to people’s attention, however, is a laudable thing. As is Blue Bloods in general.