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'61st Street' is a well-acted — but none too subtle — crime drama

61st Street, which premieres April 10 on AMC, is a detailed look at the intersection of crime, the police and the courts in Chicago. Like David Simon's The Wire, it looks at the underbelly of all these systems — exposing their weaknesses while showing how individual characters try to cope with it all.

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Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 8, 2022: Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro; Review of TV show '61st St.'

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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. "61st Street," which premieres Sunday on AMC, is a detailed look at the intersection of crime, the police and the courts. Like David Simon's "The Wire," it looks at the underbelly of all those systems, exposing their weaknesses while showing how individual characters try to cope with it all. But showrunner Peter Moffat, who created "61st Street," plays with another formula as well, and it's his own. The events that propel this new drama are similar to the ones that launched his two most acclaimed TV series, HBO's "The Night Of" and Showtime's "Your Honor."

In both those shows, as with this one, everything is set in motion by a tragic accident. In this case, a neighborhood track star named Moses Johnson, headed for college on a scholarship, ends up at the wrong place at the wrong time. A cop ends up dead, and Moses is charged with his murder. Logan, the cop's partner, is first to arrive on the scene, and his account could exonerate Moses. But his lieutenant, played by Holt McCallany from Netflix's "Mindhunter," urges him to change his story. McCallany plays his bad-cop role very, very well, like he's an older brother of Michael Chiklis' Vic Mackey from "The Shield."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "61ST STREET")

HOLT MCCALLANY: (As Lieutenant Brannigan) This is a moment, Logan. Everything that's been happening in our country - we lost control of the story. Cops across America wake up feeling like we can't do our job. Or worse - we got to say sorry for wearing the uniform. I'm sorry I'm a cop? But with this, with a brother officer murdered on the street for doing his job, the story swings back our way.

BIANCULLI: On the spectrum of good cop, bad cop, the lieutenant clearly is on the corrupt side. Partly in reaction to police misconduct around this case, longtime community resident Martha Roberts throws her hat into the political ring. Martha is played by Aunjanue Ellis, who adds another strong role to her already impressive credits. She's already been excellent in "When They See Us," "Lovecraft Country" and "King Richard." And here she is in "61st Street" as Martha, stepping to the podium for the very first time to address a neighborhood audience as a political activist. Her topic - the Chicago Police Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "61ST STREET")

AUNJANUE ELLIS: (As Martha Roberts) What do we do with an organization funded by our tax money when it chooses to hurt and kill the people it's paid to protect? What do we do with an organization when its members become criminals, when they become murderers? We stop funding that organization.

(CROSSTALK)

ELLIS: (As Martha Roberts) Now, I want you to hear me when I say this because I want you to know that I am not hiding behind any politician speak - defund the police.

(APPLAUSE, CROSSTALK)

ELLIS: (As Martha Roberts) We have to protect ourselves. We have to serve our community by shutting them down.

BIANCULLI: I've seen the first six of this season's eight episodes, and Aunjanue Ellis and Holt McCallany turn in such compelling performances they could have been the stars of this show. But they're not. The star is yet another wonderful actor, Courtney B. Vance, who plays Martha's husband, Franklin Roberts. He's the attorney who eventually takes on the case of Moses Johnson, the young man charged with murder. Vance also was in "Lovecraft Country" and starred as Johnnie Cochran in "The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story." In and out of the courtroom, he's at the center here and provides more than enough compassion and empathy to keep you involved and rooting for him, but - and the longer "61st Street" goes on, the more problematic this becomes - the obstacles in Franklin's way just keep piling up. The last time a TV character started out with this much stacked against him was when we met Bryan Cranston's Walter White at the start of another AMC series, "Breaking Bad."

Franklin, too, is facing a terminal medical diagnosis. His teen son is autistic. And the murder case he ends up taking after his intended retirement is full of twists, turns and unforeseen dangers. His activities in and out of the court begin affecting his wife's political aspirations and vice versa.

The primary writer on "61st Street" this first season is Sarah Beckett, whose most recent credit is the SYFY network series "Resident Alien." That's a much more fanciful series about an outer space alien living on Earth in human form. "61st Street" is much more serious and much more unrelenting. It's also too obvious, with most characters, including that lieutenant and politician, saying precisely what they think and saying it too often rather than letting anything go unsaid. The acting I can't fault, but given the lack of subtlety with which this show's messages are being presented, I worry about its conclusion and whether, in the end, "61st Street" will ultimately deliver.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE'S "ROGER THE DODGER")

BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, "Saturday Night Live" veteran Molly Shannon. She co-starred in the HBO series "The White Lotus," and later this month, she co-stars in a new Showtime comedy series about shopping channel hosts called "I Love That For You." Her new memoir begins when she was 4, riding in the car with her family when it crashed, killing her mother and her younger sister. Shannon's world was shattered. Hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE'S "ROGER THE DODGER")

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE'S "ROGER THE DODGER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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