The Equalizer-1×01: ‘The Equalizer’

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Written by Terri Edda Miller & Andrew W. Marlowe
Directed by Liz Friedlander
Original Air Date: 7th February 2021 (U.S), 3rd August 2021 (U.K)
CBS/Sky Witness

The Equalizer has proven to be something of an interesting franchise. Originally beginning life as a television series in the 1980s and which made noted British actor Edward Woodward into a star in the States, the series proved itself as something of a minor hit for CBS during the middle part of the decade.

A heart attack meant Woodward had to exit temporarily for a portion of season three, resulting in audiences drifting away under the mistaken belief that he had left the series. Whilst it did return for a fourth season, it would end up being its final year, despite having initially been commissioned for a fifth season that CBS eventually backed out on, bizarrely as an embittered result of protracted negotiations between the network and Universal over the fate of Murder, She Wrote.

It proved to be an interesting combination of James Bond and the grit of action movies such as Dirty Harry or Death Wish, its plot centred on a vigilante prowling the streets of New York, righting wrongs but with a backstory that felt influenced more by the likes of Ian Fleming, Tom Clancy and John Le Carre than anything resembling a Clint Eastwood or Cannon film. 

Backed by an atmospheric Stewart Copeland (of The Police fame) music score and one of the all time great credit sequences of its era (one that evocatively played on the real-life fears of violent crime in what was a genuinely crime riddled New York at the time), the series is simultaneously remembered by those who watched it, but has maybe never quite achieved the level of iconic fame as other 80s network action oriented series such as Knight Rider and The A-Team. Maybe because of its more adult nature, the series is one that feels as if it’s never been re-shown as often as other productions of that decade.

In the UK, the series was broadcast by ITV, but it did so in either a prime time or post-News at Ten time slot, and was far from being suitable for repeats on Saturday afternoons where it felt like shows such as The A-Team were permanently scheduled for years.

Inevitably, a Hollywood blockbuster remake came around, yielding a box office hit for Denzel Washington and director Antoine Fuqua that managed to produce a sequel, and now, equally inevitably, it’s found its way back to television, this time with Queen Latifah in the lead role, the character of Robert McCall now rechristened Robyn McCall. 

Latifah is great and, suffice to say, she gives the role her all, but given that this new television iteration is coming from Terri Edda Miller and Andrew Marlowe, the wife and husband team team responsible for Castle (technically a Marlowe creation but both he and Miller collaborated on many of its finest episodes), you might be, like myself, expecting something good. 

Sadly, you would be mistaken. 

Castle may not have been the most original television series ever made (basically it was Murder, She Wrote combined with the romantic comedy vibe of mismatched male/female detective series such as Remington Steele, Bones and Moonlighting), but it made for a series that featured some brilliantly witty dialogue, well-put together procedural stories and some genuinely wicked humour. Miller and Marlowe themselves wrote ‘Cuffed’, an ingenious semi-bottle episode that piled on comedy, suspense and some unexpected plot twists to hilarious and gripping effect. 

Maybe it’s wrong to do the comparison thing, but given how their best work managed to subvert and use obvious cliches to great effect, there is something strangely lifeless and perfunctory about 2021’s The Equalizer. Given that CBS has become more famous for the home of shared universe procedurals such as NCIS and Dick Wolf’s FBI strand of programmes, maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that this plays as a bland network procedural that you would expect from the current era of CBS’ emphasis on well worn genres and ideas. 

That might sound like snobbery on my part, but it really isn’t. I actually enjoy procedurals; the original CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (which was a huge smash for CBS in the 2000s) is one of my favourite television series of all time, I have fond memories of watching repeats of The Equalizer on ITV during the 90s, and my current binge (at the time of writing) is Elementary, a none more procedural take on Sherlock Holmes. 

However, given the level of talent involved here, I wish this aimed for something more interesting. There is nothing wrong with obviousness when it’s done well, but this isn’t done well and the fault lies, disappointingly, with the writing. Latifah is great and perhaps elevates the whole thing with a performance that runs the gamut of enjoyably tough, to charming and even humorous, but there is nothing new here, and it ends up just being a replay of a formula for a third time. 

Given that Robyn McCall lives with her aunt and teenage daughter, you can’t help but be reminded of the domestic dynamic in Castle and how Miller and Marlowe used a similar set-up of parental figure and teenage daughter for dramatic or comedic effect previously. Latifah, Laya DeLeon Hayes as Robyn’s daughter Delilah and Lorraine Toussaint as Aunt Vi are great in the roles, but they are let down by obvious writing and approach to the material that it feels like it’s playing by numbers and doing everything safely rather than trying anything new.

Even the action is haphazardly done. A fight sequence involving McCall taking out a room full of thugs relies on shaky cam and editing that makes the sequence borderline unwatchable, and while the character is given backup throughout the episode in the shape of Adam Goldberg’s computer hacker and Liza Lapira’s sharp shooter who both equally try their best, it doesn’t help that the humour and banter is the type of thing we’ve seen a million times before.

Goldberg’s hacker character falls into the long list of hacker/computer programmer characters that have become a stock in trade in television action dramas that always feel as if they owe a debt of Chloe in 24, but as always, computer hacking is dull to watch on screen even if the music score is pounding away over the soundtrack trying to convince us it’s the most exciting thing ever. Rest assured, it isn’t.

Maybe in the long run it will get better, maybe it might even try and do something new with the formula once it’s got a few episodes under its belt,  but on the basis of this, third time isn’t the charm for The Equalizer.

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