In the world of police procedurals CBS’ “SWAT” endeavors to be an aspirational look at a highly-specialized law enforcement unit. Working with consultants on the “practicality of tactical terminology and tactical strategies” gives the series and those working on it “a healthy respect for the badge and for the job, and certainly for the sacrifices and the efforts that are made by the individuals who choose to become police officers,” says showrunner Aaron Rahsaan Thomas. But while the show tries to “capture the spirit” of that unit, it can’t ignore the reactions that wear the vests and carry the guns. And in 2020, that reaction has come with outcry over and protests against injustice, systemic racism, and police brutality.
In the fourth season premiere, “SWAT” tackled this present-day reality while also reflecting on the recent past, dramatizing a march for George Floyd during which its main character (Hondo, played by Shemar Moore) is called out for being a Black man who is backing the blue. (This is a thread that will be pulled through the entire fourth season, says “SWAT” showrunner Aaron Rahsaan Thomas.) It also reflected on the recent past by flashing back to a younger Hondo experiencing the 1992 uprising after the unlawful beating of Rodney King.
“We are kind of a time capsule,” Thomas tells Variety. “You can see that there was an Emmett Till that we were still talking about in 2020, and was just as relevant as he’s ever been — fortunately, and unfortunately. It can be an example that we hope we learn from but it’s something we should never forget. And so we always want to keep these memories alive. There’s no excuse for the current or future generation to to not be aware of the legacy that lives with us every day.”
That noble goal can also be a heavy responsibility for scripted television, but it is one that fueled a number of returning series’ decisions to incorporate a near-real time response to the summer’s resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests, cries for police reform, and general social activism into their formats. But doing so has not come without challenges and narrative changes for these already-established series, especially as production was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over on NBC, the fifth season of “This Is Us” also featured characters absorbing the protests, primarily through Randall (Sterling K. Brown), who is a Black man who grew up as the adopted son of a white family, and his wife and kids. Also on the Peacock network, the eighth season of “Chicago PD” featured witnesses to a shooting being unhelpful and at times hostile to the officers questioning them, in response to law enforcement’s history of racism, while CBS’ “The Neighborhood” used its third season premiere to have both its Black and white families, the Butlers and the Johnsons, take part in Black Lives Matter protests in their pocket of Los Angeles and deliver a teachable moment for young Grover Johnson (Hank Greenspan) that the reason the police wouldn’t hurt him is not because he is a child, but because he is white.
That conversation between Grover and his mother Gemma (Beth Behrs) was born out of similar ones that series showrunner Jim Reynolds has had with his own children. Although it is not one that might be comfortable for some of the audience to watch, let alone have in their real lives, “in the interest of creating a better tomorrow, we thought it was important to show what white people need to be doing,” Reynolds tells Variety. “There’s no time that’s too soon to start letting kids know about injustice so they have that foundation to move forward and hopefully make it better, in the interest of being anti-racist — not just not racist.”
In order to include protest scenes, “The Neighborhood” featured a small group heading to and back from one; “This Is Us” had its characters reference attending them and utilized real news footage for characters to watch on screens within the screen; “SWAT” had Hondo witness a small group pass him by in a march and used a mix of archival footage and recreated dramatization for the flashbacks.
“That was one of the first rise it really after media coverage, then maybe we could supplement some of the wide shots and sell that so that we can go in close and use fewer people actually on location, we can still pull off like the feeling that you were actually there,” Thomas says of the 1992 uprising.
It also helped cover moments production couldn’t, due to the pandemic. “Without COVID, we probably would have gotten a lot of establishing shots ourselves: drone shots of hundreds of people on the street that would have shown the live scope of it a little bit more,” Thomas admits.
Similarly, Reynolds says that even his shot-on-a-soundstage sitcom “would have gone to the protest or seen more people, just to help sell those moments,” if they weren’t producing the episode in a pandemic. They, too, “limited the number of extras and the size and scale we could show,” and they, too, feel it worked out in way that better suited the show’s mission. “Intimacy was really valuable as we addressed these issues. Having an episode where there was more conversation was important to illustrate our message.”
For “SWAT,” it was also important “to not make this a very special episode,” says Thomas. Therefore, throughout the season, “SWAT” will continue to look at the legacy of the LAPD, he continues, and have characters such as Deacon (Jay Harrington) experience a “crisis” of their own moral codes and ethics: “Are you doing a disservice if you’re not being actively anti-racist?” he says.
Similarly, “Chicago PD” will continue to showcase a range of moral compasses (and downright corruption) within its characters. Its eighth season picked up with fallout from Kevin Atwater (LaRoyce Hawkins) standing by his principles (and the truth) that the gangbangers who killed Doyle (Mickey O’Sullivan) were doing so in self-defense after he racially profiled a Black man and began chasing him. By Kevin refusing to bend to the blue brotherhood that has so often involved covering for each other’s bad behavior and criminal actions, he becomes a target of the very same force.
Shows such as “Chicago PD” and “SWAT” may come with an inherent expectation of responding to this moment in time since they are set in the world of law enforcement, but shining a light on social justice is something “The Neighborhood” team felt like they “had to do” as well, according to Reynolds.
“While we knew this would be a different episode tonally,” he says, in “the CBS audience, I think there are a lot of people out there that don’t necessarily have the frame of reference or Black people in their lives in a regular basis, and this was a way to use our characters to help people understand and see the very real experience of what it is to be Black in this country.”
Since its inception, “The Neighborhood” set out to focus its storytelling on “race relations,” Reynolds continues, with a white family moving into a predominantly Black neighborhood and the members of the two households becoming (sometimes reluctant) friends.
“If you win hearts you can change minds, and so, having these conversations a few years in when people have invested in our characters, this was a chance to talk about these issues in a way that will hopefully help the white people in our audience gain further insights while also validating the experiences of our Black audience,” says Reynolds.