There’s a new show premiering on Sunday that you should probably check out. It’s an emotional drama called The Red Line that centers on the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man in Chicago that leaves the entire city — not to mention his grieving white husband and his adopted black daughter — reeling in the wake of the unspeakable tragedy. The series tackles police shootings, LGBTQ issues, racial politics, and identity, and boasts an cast that includes Noah Wyle, Noel Fisher, Aliyah Royale, and Emayatzy Corinealdi. Greg Berlanti and Ava DuVernay stand behind it as executive producers and, oh yeah, it’s airing on CBS.
Did that last sentence catch you by surprise? It might, because even though “America’s Most Watched Network” has made strides in recent years with shows like S.W.A.T. and Instinct, the clamor for CBS to improve diversity both in front of and behind the camera has been deafening. The network’s conservative reputation had Wyle convinced the network would never pick it up, even though the pilot script was one of the best he’d read in years.
“[The script] just affected me in a way I haven’t really been moved by material before. It just rocked my world,” the actor told TV Guide this winter at the Television Critics Association press tour. “The first thing I thought was, ‘CBS is never going to put this on the TV. What a waste of effort this would be.’ But knowing that it was probably going to be a waste of effort, I still felt really drawn towards challenging myself to play the part because the part scared the s*** out of me. The storyline scares me in a lot of ways. Talking about it scares me.”
But CBS is putting it on TV. The Red Line was one of CBS president Kelly Kahl‘s first acquisitions after taking over the network in 2017 — and being raked over the coals by critics for the network’s continued lack of diversity. The series was inspired by a play written by Caitlin Parrish and Erica Weiss, who executive produce the series along with Sunil Nayar.
In their original work, Daniel Calder’s (Wyle) husband was killed in a car accident and the central drama revolved around the fact that in 2011, gay couples had limited legal rights when it came to determining a partner’s medical care. When updating the material, Parrish and Weiss realized there had been a shift in the political zeitgeist. With marriage equality legal in the US, the women changed the Calder family story to revolve around a police shooting, which would also help them delve into the difficult conversations plaguing their second home of Chicago, as well as the rest of the nation. The script was picked up by Warner Bros., where Parrish was already working as a staff writer for Supergirl, and quickly made its way to Berlanti, who has had an overall deal with the studio for years. It was only a short while before the script also made its way to DuVernay, as the Selma director inked her own overall deal with WB.
With those superpower names attached, the creative team was able to then assemble the incredible cast who tell the story of Harrison Brennan’s (Corey Reynolds) death from three different perspectives. Wyle plays Harrison’s spouse trying to be there for their teenage daughter (Royale), despite the varying complications their different complexions bring to their grief. Fisher plays Paul Evans, the cop who pulled the trigger and must grapple with the consequences of his actions in a rapidly changing political landscape. Finally, there’s Tia Young (Corinealdi), a woman running for alderman to represent a community shaken by Brennan’s untimely death.
The series was shopped around to multiple networks, but only CBS took the bait. The pickup surprised Parrish and Weiss, but has since convinced the duo that their show could be the start of a new era for the network. The relevance of this story, combined with CBS’ desire to change their outward perception actually made the network the perfect place to tell this story and make a difference.
“I’ve gone from thinking of The Red Line as ‘not a CBS show’ to thinking of The Red Line as a show for the ‘new CBS’ because not once did we get pushback on content,” Parrish told TV Guide. “We had partners that were really excited to be doing something new and to be doing something really relevant. And when you have a show like The Red Line, which is a nuanced and challenging show, but one that’s ultimately about hope and optimism on a network like CBS with the platform it has with the audience it has, and with its desire to build a new audience, you have a chance of reaching a great many more people than you might on a streaming or cable platform.”
The placement of the series only increased Wyle’s love for it as well, acknowledging that the message of the show wouldn’t be as important on another network already talking about the series’ themes.
“Not to give CBS special credit for making this show because maybe they should have been making these shows a long time ago, but you put this show on Showtime, or you put this show on Netflix, you put it on Epix or you put it on Hulu and you move the cultural needle zero,” the actor said. “This show, on CBS, with me potentially acting as a Trojan horse to get this into living rooms that wouldn’t necessarily watch it, has the potential of having its intended effect — which is to expose people to the complexity of other people’s lives… I think there’s a lot of great shows on TV and a lot of good shows on CBS but there’s not a lot of shows like this on CBS, and that is what makes it exciting.”
Below, Parrish and Weiss talked more about the important message of The Red Line and why they hope viewers will fall in love with the complex story.
The show is not only airing on CBS, but it’s being treating like an event series. When did that idea sort of come up and how do you guys feel having the story play out over four weekends rather than eight weeks?
Weiss: The event series came after the pilot was picked up to series. So we didn’t necessarily pitch it that way, but also like I said, the pilot pickup was very late in the game. So we got to make the pilot that we wrote as a spec script and CBS, I think, looking at how different it was from the rest of their lineup, and without speaking for all the folks that made the decision, the sense was that they really wanted to highlight that and make it something where it wouldn’t just get folded into the lineup of shows — that it was something that they wanted to turn people’s heads. I think that the decision to air them in four weeks, in this back-to-back two episodes per night following their new broadcast of 60 Minutes makes it feel even more like it’s being geared to be a conversation piece and a cultural event.
One of the things I really love about the series is that you guys aren’t just talking about police shootings, but there’s LGBTQ stories in there, there’s the pressure of black excellence, there’s adoption issues, a bunch of these things. How do you make sure that you had space to actually have conversations about each of these topics rather than just mentioning them to check off like a diversity inclusion box?
Parrish: It’s a challenge because when you only have eight episodes and you have a really beautiful large ensemble to service and a lot of stories to service. The question of balance is a very good one… At the end of the day, we made it a priority to create an incredibly inclusive writers room that reflected not exactly our ensemble, but the diversity within the city of Chicago itself. We set a number of goals for ourselves at the beginning of the season in terms of the stories that we as a room, not just me and Erica, but the stories that we as a room felt very strongly about and felt like we needed to deal with in a nuanced and in-depth way. Then as we broke stories forming characters in mind, some things received greater service than others, but at the end of the day it was always about striking that balance. It was always about making sure that if we picked up a certain baton it wasn’t just going to be a box that was checked, it was going to be something that was important and dealt with.
Weiss: The way to avoid the feeling that a box is being checked or that you’re just trying to pick through issues is by your ensemble of characters living these experiences so that to spend any time with them in their lives is to spend time with those experiences that ideally feels authentic. Not everything needed to be a very special moment or a very special story to feel truly touched upon and that was our goal as well.
Police brutality and police shootings are something that we’ve seen covered a little bit in television to the point we’re starting to hear phrases like “protest fatigue” and that sort of thing. How are you hoping The Red Line furthers this conversation rather than just adding to the noise that’s already there?
Weiss: Caitlin and I are not noise people. We are people who want to have an earnest conversation and it’s not ultimately about the distinction between showing all sides or just having one particular point of view. We don’t really see the show as either of those things. We’re approaching the sociopolitical issues and the tough conversations that people are having, the divisive conversations that people are having from a place of let’s look at these stories through the lens of human beings, through the lens of families and see what we can learn and empathize with if we go into it that way.
We’re not really attempting to soap box, we’re attempting to introduce characters that people can love and be interested in and take the conversation with that as the starting point. We’re hoping that people have a lot to talk about with one another and hopefully will also talk about passionately, but the goal was never to continue to pit people against each other. I think there is a space and a necessity for stories that take points of view and activism as a very front-and-center and very bold component of how they put themselves out there. And this show attempts to do that in a different way.
What would you like to say to people who might see the trailer and just brush this series off as, “This is the liberal agenda”? How do you want to reach out to them and say that this is a show for everyone?
Weiss: This is a political show. It can’t not be. Because the personal story is political and we’re dealing with people whose lives are explicitly touched by events you see in the news. However, I think that we’ve done a really good job and struck a really good balance of being determined to see everyone as complicated human beings. That we are perhaps, like Caitlin said, agitators and disruptors, but not bomb throwers. You know, as we’ve said before, the goal was never to rile people up to make them angrier. There’s enough in the news and in the cultural conversation that does that work. We just hope that people who may have different political takes or different backgrounds, people who identify more with one character or the other, are invested enough in the human story and are willing to give these families a chance so that they might wind up seeing both themselves and each other a little bit more clearly.
The Red Line continues next Sunday at 8/7c on CBS.
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