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‘The Equalizer’ Review: Queen Latifah’s Return to Scripted TV Should Land with CBS Demo, but No Further

She becomes only the fifth Black woman to headline an hour-long broadcast network drama. Too bad it had to be such a formulaic retread.

"Pilot" -- Coverage of the CBS series THE EQUALIZER, scheduled to air on the CBS Television Network. Pictured: Queen Latifah as Robyn McCallPhoto: Michael Greenberg/CBS ©2020 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Queen Latifah in “The Equalizer”

CBS

In CBS’ New York City-set re-imagining of the 1980s series “The Equalizer,” starring the late Edward Woodward as the stoic menace with a populist message, multi-hyphenate Queen Latifah plays Robyn McCal. She’s an enigmatic former CIA operative who uses her particular set of rather extensive skills to help those with nowhere else to turn. As yet another one of CBS’ exhumations of classic last-century crime/drama series (including “MacGyver,” “Magnum P.I.,” “Hawaii Five-0,” “S.W.A.T.,” and more), this “Equalizer” feels thoroughly unoriginal. There are a number of callbacks to the original series, which the reboot relies on primarily (not the Denzel Washington movie adaptations), but they probably won’t mean anything to new audiences.

Like the male “Equalizer” characters, Latifah’s McCall is a former intelligence operative for the CIA who became disillusioned with the government’s methods and opted for civilian life. What prompts her to enter a new career of reformer is a chance entanglement with the case of a young woman — Jewel (Lorna Courtney) — framed for murder and on the run from the real killers, who are backed by an Elon Musk-esque tech executive. It’s representative of the many series’ plot contrivances that McCall just happens to see the woman being ushered into some kind of storage facility at Coney Island, perhaps reluctantly, by a nondescript man, late one night. Of course, as a fighter for the proletariat, she follows them out of protective curiosity, and is soon drawn into a conspiracy that involves deep-fake videos, a murdered attorney, mercenaries, complemented by the usual car/motorcycle chases, fight sequences (watch Latifah effortlessly dispatch four goons), trite one-liners, and the like.

Unlike the original version and movie adaptations featuring imperturbable, lone-wolf vigilantes — seemingly without much backstory — Latifah puts a human face on a well-worn formula, grounding her character in reality. She has family, including her rambunctious 15-year-old daughter, Delilah (Laya DeLeon Hayes), and Aunt Vi (the great Lorraine Toussaint, with really nothing to do here), and friends. She has to figure out how to switch off the soldier inside of her, where she seems most at ease, and switch on the mother, where she seems to struggle most. She exists in two worlds, and there’s room throughout the season for the series to really dig into that dichotomy. But there’s nothing in the episode that suggests it will. Latifah, who exudes natural instincts and a casual confidence, isn’t given much that requires her to do anything but cruise on her charisma, and cash checks for however long the series runs.

https://youtu.be/zgCBbz_hlkc

Her presence alone won’t be enough to distinguish the series from the rest of CBS’ assembly-line slate. A key difference between both versions of the series, that creators and showrunners, Andrew Marlowe and Terri Miller, are likely banking on to help it stand out, is that its center of gravity is Latifah, who becomes only the fifth Black woman in the history of television to lead an hour-long broadcast network drama — after Teresa Graves (“Get Christie Love!”), Kerry Washington (“Scandal”), Viola Davis (“Hot to Get Away With Murder”), and Simone Missick (“All Rise”). The series also wants to make it clear that she’s not just a woman who happens to be Black; she’s a Black woman, although race won’t necessarily be a recurring theme throughout the season.

A scene late in the pilot, in which McCall tenderly but firmly tells her daughter that Black girls aren’t especially favored by society’s odds, also underscores what audiences should expect as a running theme throughout the series. McCall is a Black woman trying to level the playing field for people who too often run out of options. But absent of any particularly interesting twists, this “Equalizer” will do well to flesh out the essential qualities of the woman in its driver’s seat, and dig for novel ways to properly utilize the many talents of both Latifah, and McCall.

Otherwise, this latest iteration risks being disappointingly generic, for both fans of the Woodward version and new audiences seeking an uncomplicated, entertaining procedural to watch.

On its surface, it would seem like a series perfectly suited for the present day, as poll after poll indicates that everyday Americans increasingly don’t trust the institutions that are supposed to defend and protect them, and feel utterly powerless to fight against an all-too powerful system fortified by uber-rich sociopaths and corporations.

“Everybody’s playing chess,” McCall laments to her former C.I.A. handler, mentor, and now friend, William Bishop (Chris Noth as a suitably smirky version of probably every character he’s played on television). “Nobody’s thinking about the living, breathing pieces that we sacrifice along the way.”

When Bishop tries to convince her to join his lucrative private security firm — “babysitting billionaires” — she refuses. And she’s not interested in returning to the CIA, which led her to a terribly mishandled potentially fatal job in Afghanistan (which she still has nightmares about), nor will she ever sell out. Instead, she wants to help “the people I couldn’t save.”

There’s potential there for a compelling Robin Hood-esque fable that could be exciting. Alas, it’s CBS, and time will tell whether the show’s creators and showrunners, Andrew Marlowe and Terri Miller, will exploit any far more intriguing possibilities.

Joining Latifah and Noth as series regulars, there to help McCall with each case of the week, is her ad hoc team consisting of stock characters, like the wisecracking sharpshooter Melody Bayani (Liza Lapira), and her tech genius husband Harry Keshegian (Adam Goldberg), who can hack into anything. Collectively, they form an underground company that should be instantly recognizable to audiences well-versed in network crime procedurals. But there’s a history between McCall, Bayani, Keshegian, and Bishop in place, that could be fertile ground for stories that go beyond the case-of-the-week format.

Tory Kittles as Detective Marcus Dante, an intelligent and shrewd NYPD detective who is determined to uncover The Equalizer’s true identity, serves as a necessary wrinkle. A possible romance down the road between Dante and McCall, or at the very least, some sexual tension, is a possibility, as he tries to figure out if she’s the boogie-woman working outside the confines of the bureaucratic machine. Like her Batman to his Commissioner Gordon, they both share a deep commitment to ridding the city of crime, but their methods sharply contrast.

In Latifah’s first return to lead a scripted serial television since “Living Single,” which aired on Fox from 1993 to 1998, “The Equalizer” is both an attempt at a fresh take on the original and its genre, as well as an indubitably CBS drama. The network is clearly banking on its revamped combo working in the traditionally coveted post-Super Bowl slot. However, it’s less clear if this first episode will be captivating enough to sustain a significant enough audience.

Grade: C-

“The Equalizer” premiere will be air immediately following CBS’ broadcast of Super Bowl LV, on Sunday, February 7, at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT. It will move to its regular Sunday (8 p.m. ET/PT) time slot on February 14.

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