I tuned into the new CBS drama “Tommy” for one reason: Edie Falco.
My contempt for network drama as compared to premium cable and streamed productions reached the point in recent years where I would ask anyone defending the genre to name one series besides NBC’s “This Is Us” that they regularly went out of their way to see. The answer was usually silence.
But Edie Falco, one of the finest actors to ever work in television, doing a weekly network series? To me, that was news. I have been a fan of hers since the groundbreaking HBO prison drama “Oz” in which she played Officer Diane Wittlesey, the first woman guard at the prison. That was in 1997.
I stayed true blue through her premium cable dramas “The Sopranos” and “Nurse Jackie," in which she played a mobster’s wife and drug-addicted nurse respectively. But not everyone can afford the subscription fees for HBO and Showtime, the two premium channels on which those series appeared. So, all praise to CBS for bringing Falco to weekly network television.
“Tommy,” which features Falco as Abigail “Tommy” Thomas, a former high ranking New York City police official who becomes the first female and lesbian police chief of Los Angeles, is not a great TV drama. But it could be thanks to Falco’s presence and the series’ clear aspiration to an enlightened sense of social consciousness ― that is to responsibly and intelligently reflect and comment on this era of conflict and tremendous change in American life. That’s something the best cable and streaming dramas regularly do, while network productions mostly don’t.
That marker is laid down in the pilot when Chief Thomas ditches her wooden prepared remarks at a civic event and tells her audience, “I’m a cop. I’m a woman. I am a gay woman. And so ... let’s talk about how it feels to be not only the first female chief of police in Los Angeles, but also how it feels to be a gay woman in America in the year 2020, who also happens to be the chief of police.”
She could be speaking on behalf of the series to the audience of millions watching her onscreen and wondering what this series is going to be about.
But those are just two things the series is about. One of the primary reasons I believe “Tommy” is going to be successful in its exploration of the lead character’s female and lesbian identities is the way in which those aspects of her identity do not overwhelmingly define her or the story lines in subsequent episodes. They are only part of who she is. And Falco’s performance makes me want to know all I can about the total person. (See, I am already thinking of Thomas as a real person instead of a TV character.)
Not that the series is only Falco. The pilot was created by Paul Attanasio, who created the landmark NBC cop drama, “Homicide: Life on the Street,” which filmed in Baltimore in the 1990s. He wrote the screenplays for the feature films “Quiz Show” and “Donnie Brasco” as well. (On balance, it should also be noted that he created the CBS drama “Bull,” as sorry an excuse for a courtroom drama as I can remember seeing.)
One strong current of tension and conflict established in the pilot of “Tommy” involves this barrier-breaking woman coming into the top job in a sexist, if not misogynistic, culture ― and some of the men having long knives out for her. The mayor was forced to hire a woman chief as part of a consent decree following the previous chief being involved in a sexual harassment scandal. So, even her boss, a shifty guy in his own right, is not necessarily in her corner.
That’s the same tension that I felt watching Helen Mirren as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison in the pilot of “Prime Suspect” on PBS many years ago. The overall writing in “Tommy” isn’t nearly as good, but it is good enough to resonate a little, and Falco is definitely in the same league as Mirren. Her character has the same kind of steel as Mirren’s Tennison. But it’s only one of her multiple dimensions.
Another series that came to mind as I watched the first three episodes of “Tommy” was the long-running CBS drama “Blue Bloods” starring Tom Selleck as the New York City police commissioner. I spent a lot of time with that show last year analyzing its conservative messages and patriarchy as part of larger exploration of prime-time ideology.
Think of “Tommy” as the inverse of “Blue Bloods." It’s set in Los Angeles instead of New York. A woman instead of a man is the focus of authority. It’s a highly divers, instead of overwhelmingly white, world, with multiculturalism, rather than tribalism, as the norm. And it features family members who are struggling with troubled marriages and divorce instead of a family that gathers in the patriarch’s home around a big table at least once a week to talk, eat and celebrate their solidarity with one another.
One of the ongoing and strongest story lines involves Thomas’ attempt to reconnect with her biracial daughter, Kate (Olivia Lucy Phillip), a psychologist. She resents her mother for what she sees as an emotional abandonment as Thomas pursued her career in law enforcement. Kate herself is going through a marital struggle with her husband sleeping in the guest house as the couple discusses divorce. No big family gatherings here, though Thomas’ ex-husband does appear in Episode 3, and they do try and have a dinner with their daughter and son-in-law. But it does not end well.
Episode 3, which is scheduled to air Feb. 20, is the one that made me a believer in “Tommy.” Its main story line deals with sexual assault and the #MeToo movement in the entertainment industry. There is nothing pedantic, preachy or ripped from the headlines about the episode as it intelligently explores the roles power and silence play in allowing the perpetuation of patriarchy.
Furthermore, the third episode connected with me emotionally in a way neither of the first two did. That’s important, too, because in the world of network drama, it doesn’t matter how smart or socially relevant a series is if it’s not connecting as drama at an emotional level with viewers.
I want to believe the commitment to this series is part of a larger effort at reform by CBS in the wake of its own sexual harassment scandal that resulted in the resignation in 2018 of CEO Leslie Moonves in the face of multiple allegations of sexual harassment and assault. Morning show anchor Charlie Rose and Jeff Fager, the executive producer of “60 Minutes,” also lost their jobs amid allegations of workplace misconduct in 2018.
Unlike NBC, which has stonewalled in the face of serious #MeToo allegations by multiple women as chronicled in Ronan Farrow’s book, "Catch and Kill,” CBS has clearly tried to alter its culture with Susan Zirinsky named president of CBS News, and Gayle King and Nora O’Donnell showcased as the faces of its morning and evening marquee news programs.
After all these years of seeing network TV consistently following only the money instead of its better angels, I am probably nuts to try to see “Tommy” through a larger lens of reform.
But if CBS could get Edie Falco to do a weekly prime-time series with such a sense of social consciousness, why not give it the benefit of the doubt ― at least, for the moment?