SPOILER ALERT: This article contains details about the pilot episode of The Rookie.
At the beginning of ABC’s new cop drama The Rookie, Nathan Fillion’s character John Nolan is going through a divorce and is on a journey of self-discovery after 40. He asks “Who am I?” to a bank manager/friend. She answers, “The question is: Who do you want to be?” That exchange should lay a foundation for a cop dramedy seething with middle-aged existentialism, but instead, the pilot is an hourlong old-age joke that overwhelms and diminishes John’s self-worth.
Written by executive producer Alexi Hawley and directed by Liz Friedlander, the pilot that premieres at 10 tonight sees John entering the police force after a bank robbery puts his life into perspective. However, as a 45-year-old pursuing his dream of becoming a police officer, he is surrounded by younger recruits who can run circles around him, not to mention Sgt. Wade Grey (Richard T. Jones), who basically told him he doesn’t want him around because he’s old and is a “walking midlife crisis.”
As he runs the ageism gauntlet, John tries to persevere through the tough love given to him by his training officer Bishop (Afton Williamson) as well as the glares and insults from other TOs including hardass Lopez (Alyssa Diaz) and borderline bigot Bradford (Eric Winter). He does find comfort and support from his fellow rookies including legacy recruit Jackson (Titus Makin Jr.) and the overachieving Lucy (Melissa O’Neil), who eventually becomes more than a friend. There’s also Mercedes Mason, who steps into the role of Captain Zoe Andersen, whose presence in the episode is barely felt but I’m sure she’ll be yelling things like “You’re agitating my sciatica!” when the unit isn’t getting the job done.
The “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” premise is one that has been tackled by TV series and movies many times before, and The Rookie is thrown on the pile and easily can get lost in the shuffle. Within the first 10 minutes of the series, Sgt. Grey lobs old-age cracks at John during a briefing meeting introducing the new recruits. He says one of the three is “pushing an expiration date” and that he was “born before disco died.” These jokes get old — and irritating — fast. It’s one thing to have old-age jokes throughout the pilot to provide fuel for character growth, but to have them be so basic and bland makes it worse and takes away from the intent of the show.
We are supposed to look at John Nolan through sympathetic eyes; a middle-age man who has reached a point in his life where he wants to make changes for the better. He is aware that his new path is difficult and an uphill battle, but those around him make it tougher than it needs to be. I understand there is a need to make conflict in order for Fillion’s character to grow and learn more about himself, but in the pilot episode, he is practically bullied and shamed — as if aging is something we can control. There is absolutely nothing playful about the insults, and rather than tell a story about a man trying to find himself, The Rookie tends to focus more on how a younger generation looks down on older folks for pursuing their dreams. There also might be a subversive angle to all of this. Whether intentional or not, this might be a subtle way for white, straight, middle-aged men to feel compassion for marginalized communities. Whether John actually is being marginalized is a whole other can of worms, but he is certainly is being treated unfairly — or maybe this hot take is digging too deep into a shallow pit.
John Nolan definitely is the type of character suited for Fillion — a mature, thoughtful man with baggage who is trying to live a new life post-divorce. As he enters the police force, we see his experiences of responding to calls of domestic abuse and see him go on a foot chase in hot pursuit of a negligent father. As a rookie, he gets hyper-criticized for his work — and I get it. As one of the new kids on the block, a considerable amount of hazing is in order. But when you throw in the stale, mean-spirited old-age insults, it pretty much negates everything about this show that could potentially make it decent.