Queen Latifah in The Equalizer. Barbara Nitke/CBS

Why CBS’s The Equalizer Reboot is Worth a Look

CBS’s The Equalizer, a reboot of the 1985 series of the same name, stars Queen Latifah as former CIA operative Robyn McCall. The show premiered on February 8th after the Superbowl. Its permanent time-slot is Sundays at 8 pm on CBS.

Now, before going any further, let’s just get this point out of the way. If you’re expecting a network crime drama to not be “formulaic” you’re going to hate every single one of them. However, criticizing a network crime drama for being a network crime drama is ridiculous. It's the familiarity of this network television genre that makes it a successful cultural staple. There’s no point in saying something’s not an apple when we’re talking about an orange. Is it a good orange? That’s the question.

Still, for those who might say The Equalizer is not realistic, neither is most of what we call entertainment television. Every show requires the viewer to take things as true that in real life would be hard to fathom. Yet, viewers are clearly willing to take on many unrealistic premises. For instance, do we think most viewers of The Walking Dead believe that zombies could end up walking the earth? Of course not! What matters to those watching is that the show builds a world with consistent logic.

Being that there’s only been one episode of The Equalizer, it remains to be seen how this world will hold up. However, in a scene that borrows from the movie, the show establishes that Robyn McCall is a certified bad-ass by having her take out a room full of thugs. It’s not the most graphic fight scene, but it doesn’t need to be. Pairing that with her background as a CIA operative who’s fought in many hot zones is enough to establish the point that she’s a bad-ass that can hold her own. We don’t need to see her going fists-to-cuffs all the time. Besides, that’s not what the original was all about.

Compare and Contrast: Equalizers Past and Present

Now, if you aren’t familiar with the original show or the movies starring Denzel Washington, you probably aren’t thinking about how much Robyn McCall does or doesn’t fight. However, if you did watch either the movies or the original, you’re bound to notice some shifts beyond the obvious gender swap. Although the basic idea of all three incarnations of McCall is the same, a former government agent decides to set up a service to help innocent people in trouble who have nowhere else to turn, there are some key differences.

In this most recent version of The Equalizer, Robyn McCall’s world is one held together by relationships. This was not the case in the original. As played by Edward Woodward, McCall is part James Bond (circa Never Say Never Again), part Batman (the brooding ones, not Adam West), and 100 percent, vigilante. It takes a while to get a sense of his relationships with the others in his life. He’s at first estranged from his adult son (William Zabka), who shows up in 12 episodes over four seasons. McCall does work with other people, but they are all reoccurring characters, making McCall seem more isolated in what he does.

In contrast, Robyn McCall is shown immediately to be balanced and connected to the world. For instance, she has real relationships with her 15-year-old daughter Delilah McCall (Laya DeLeon Hayes) and her Aunt, Viola “Aunt Vi” Lascombe (Lorraine Toussaint).

Robyn also has a work family. These characters are similar to some in the original, but the updates portray them as being much closer to McCall and being that they are series regulars, we’ll probably be seeing a lot of them. First up is William Bishop (Chris Noth). He is Robyn’s former CIA boss who now runs a private security company. Bishop is similar to “Control” in the original, but the relationship between him and Robyn seems much more personal. The fact that the character actually has a full name is the first tip-off to that.

Then there’s Melody “Mel” Bayani (Liza Lapira). She’s a former Air Force sniper who now runs a bar with her husband Harry Keshegian (Adam Goldberg)who happens to be a world-class computer hacker that Robyn helped out of some trouble back in the day. Melody is a woman who clearly loves guns and danger. (She reminds me a bit of Fiona in the old show Burn Notice!). These two characters have rough counterparts in the original, but they had no connection to each other. Having them be a husband and wife makes them more fun and adds a stronger sense of camaraderie and family to the people McCall works with.

The theme of a family at home and work is one that isn’t surprising if you are familiar with the ABC show Castle (2009–2016). That’s because the showrunners for CBS’s The Equalizer are the husband and wife team of Andrew W. Marlowe & Terri Edda Miller. Much of that dramedy’s charm came from the family relationships and interpersonal dynamics. Marlowe was Castle’s creator, and he also was the showrunner for the first six seasons. Miller served as a writer, executive producer, and in her own words, “muse” for the show during most of that same time period. Both stayed with that show through season seven. Now, with CBS’s Equalizer, they are applying the importance of human connection to a straight-forward crime drama. Judging by the first episode, it’s an excellent fit.

The Movie McCall

For the movie version, Washington’s McCall does stay true to certain parts of the original. Both have the theme of atoning for past actions and a knack for the lead being the judge, juror, and executioner of the criminals caught. How Washington’s McCall differs is that he is far more physical and hands-on when dealing with the bad guys.

Although the original Equalizer certainly had violence and killings, it was McCall’s menacing presence that made it stand out. His best weapons were psychology and intelligence. Yes, he often roughed people up and killed them, but he often had one of his contacts do the shooting. Washington’s McCall also projects a kind of menace, one of pent-up distaste and fury. However, there’s a lot more physical fighting and bloodshed than In the original. Maybe that’s just the difference between a network TV show and an R-rated movie. Nevertheless, in this sense, CBS’s The Equalizer seems to be staying true to the original show.

The last thing that may be different is why Robyn McCall does what she does. In both the original show and the movies, Robert McCall has a ton of guilt and regrets about his past life as an operative. Robyn McCall also has some issues with her past, but they seem tied more to feeling that the agency she worked for had lost its way, not that she had lost hers. As such, the redemption she’s seeking seems driven by anger at being used by the agency, not her conscious choices when doing the job. Of course, this is just the first episode…

Why CBS’s The Equalizer is a Good Fit For Today

The juxtaposition of racial injustice, criminality, and the police are hardly new to American discourse. However, 2020 ushered in a national realization of just how deadly & unjust the justice system can be, especially for African-Americans and other people of color. From the killing of George Floyd to the treatment of rioters who stormed the Capitol compared to the treatment of Black Lives Matter protesters, questions about policing and the lack of equal protection under the law have been raised to new heights.

While many examples of injustice involve police killing unarmed black men, in the last decade there have also been several high-profile cases of vigilantes causing havoc and death. There’s the 2012 case of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African-American who was profiled and stalked by the head of a neighborhood watch group before the man confronted and killed Martin. More recently is the story of 18-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse. The white teenager crossed state lines to “protect” stores during a Black Lives Matter protest. He ended up killing two people and wounding a third. He is set to go on trial for homicide and attempted homicide.

With real-world cases like these in the American psyche, CBS’s The Equalizer will have to walk a fine line to keep the show from veering into true vigilante mode. The first episode does this well. In it, Robyn doesn’t have the central bad guy killed but instead leaves him for the police to pick up and take away. The detective, she’s been working with, Marcus Dante (Tory Kittles, another series regular), is a man who knows the system can be rigged & acts accordingly.

At the same time, Dante’s commitment to upholding the law is clear, so it doesn’t take long for him to become suspicious of McCall. It’s setting up a fun cat and mouse game. Granted, he seems to understand that McCall is there to ultimately do good for others, but he is a man who always looks for the truth. This makes him a model of the kind of police person we’d like all officers to be.

Ultimately, it’s this combination that makes The Equalizer a good show for right now. Together, McCall and Dante hold a promise of seeing true justice prevail — something we’re all longing for. In our real-life, too many people are getting away with murder, some literally, others figuratively. Having Queen Latifah play a crime-fighter & mom who can take on a system of injustice, and bring criminals to real justice, feels exactly like the catharsis we need.

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