Nathan Fillion is back and this time he’s a real cop. With “Castle” dead long enough for its creator to launch a new ABC comedy and one of its stars to get an ABC drama all his own, it’s time Castleites move on from watching Fillion tagging along with the boys in blue and witness him become one instead. Network executives hope so, and the sturdy pilot doesn’t give much reason to expect otherwise.
There’s not much to “The Rookie” beyond the obvious — a man in a midlife crisis finds new purpose by becoming a cop — but familiarity is kind of the point. Loosely inspired by a true story, “Castle” executive producer Alexi Hawley’s series is still an episodic cop drama built around its star and for his fans, as well as the genre’s. After the dutiful first episode, odds are Fillionites and procedural enthusiasts (aka the old guard driving broadcast viewership) will be satisfied enough to keep tracking this old rookie make his way up the ranks, even if they’ll never forget ol’ Rick, and there’s at least one cause for concern in the new series’ first hour.
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Believe it or not, the major problem with “The Rookie” isn’t Fillion’s introduction via gunpoint confessional. Caught up in the middle of a bank robbery while trying to drop off his divorce papers, Fillion’s John Nolan gets uncomfortably emotional with the masked gunmen. “Do you want to die?” one assailant yells at him, to which John offers a timid, “…no, but have I ever truly lived?” He then hurriedly recounts his life story with a pistol between his eyes, noting how this robbery is the most exciting thing to happen to him in a while, and that’s probably sad, but hey, he is sad — he’s getting divorced, after all — and what’re you gonna do but be sad?
To this, he gets smacked in the mouth with the butt of the pistol, and before audiences can thank the masked man for stopping this farcical monologue, he starts back up again. Granted, this time he’s motivated by something other than his burgeoning suicidal tendencies — John is trying to distract the robbers from noticing the cops outside — but that doesn’t mean he has to ask a bank robber, “What’s my dream?”
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Kicking off the series with a laughable setup is never good, but “The Rookie” manages to recover. It turns out John’s dream is becoming one of the boys in blue, and with a post-titles flash-forward, suddenly he’s starting his first day on the job. From there, he and his fellow new recruits — Jackson (Titus Makin Jr.), Lucy (Melissa O’Neill) — are tested on the streets by their commanding officers. Officer Lopez (Alyssa Diaz) appreciates her rook’s smarts on the job. Officer Bradford (Eric Winter) doesn’t appreciate a thing, berating his recruit by calling her “boot” and being as unpleasant as possible. Officer Bishop (Afton Williamson) is level-headed and well-vetted; she pushes Nolan up when he’s down and down when he’s up.
There’s enough parity in the group to keep viewers engaged, be it from their slew of emergencies (like a crazy man screaming about unicorns on top of his car) or testy inter-personal dynamics. (Bradford is a racist dick, but is that all just part of the test?) Even after the ridiculous opening scene, Fillion manages to fill Nolan with enough foolish sincerity to be a believable human being. That’s a tall order for the pilot, even if the silly origins will likely be forgotten before Season 1 is over.
One of the pilot’s most troublesome scenes is a big twist. No spoilers here, but just know it’s the only real surprise of the episode, so viewers won’t have any trouble spotting it. It’s kind of icky, kind of awkward, and kind of a bad idea in general given the limitations it puts on the storytelling.
Still, after one episode, it’s hard to draw a line in the sand on anything. “The Rookie” has the few auspices necessary for a functionally pleasant procedural: Its star is handsome and charming. Its supporting characters range from capable to intriguing. The structure, look, and tone, all fit the mold. “Castle” fans may still be upset their favorite show is gone, but this “Rookie” seems built from the bones of its predecessor.
“The Rookie” premieres Tuesday, October 16 at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.