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'61st Street' is a well-acted — but none too subtle — crime drama

Track star Moses Johnson (Tosin Cole) ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time in the AMC series <em>61st Street.</em>
Chuck Hodes
Track star Moses Johnson (Tosin Cole) ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time in the AMC series 61st Street.

Updated May 5, 2022 at 3:13 PM ET

61st Street, which premieres April 10 on AMC, is a detailed look at the intersection of crime, the police and the courts in Chicago. Like David Simon's The Wire, it looks at the underbelly of all these systems — exposing their weaknesses while showing how individual characters try to cope with it all.

But showrunner Peter Moffat, who created 61st Street, plays with another formula as well, and it's his own. The events that propel this new drama are similar to the ones that launched his two most acclaimed TV series, HBO's The Night Of...and Showtime's Your Honor. In both those shows, as with this one, everything is set in motion by a tragic accident.

In this case, a neighborhood track star named Moses Johnson — headed for college on a scholarship — ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time. A cop ends up dead, and Moses is charged with his murder. Logan, the cop's partner, is first to arrive on the scene, and his account could exonerate Moses — but his lieutenant, played by Holt McCallany from Netflix's Mindhunter, urges him to change his story.

On the spectrum of good-cop, bad-cop, the lieutenant clearly is on the corrupt side. Partly in reaction to police misconduct around this case, long-time community resident Martha Roberts throws her hat into the political ring. Martha is played by Aunjanue Ellis, who adds another strong role to her already impressive credits, which include When They See Us, Lovecraft Countryand King Richard.

I've seen the first six of this season's eight episodes, and Ellis and McCallany turn in such compelling performances, they could have been the stars of this show. But they're not. The star is yet another wonderful actor, Courtney B. Vance, who plays Martha's husband, Franklin Roberts. He's the attorney who eventually takes on Moses' case. Vance also was in Lovecraft Country, and starred as Johnnie Cochran in The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. In and out of the courtroom, he's at the center here, and provides more than enough compassion and empathy to keep you involved, and rooting for him.

But — and the longer 61st Street goes on, the more problematic this becomes — the obstacles in Franklin's way just keep piling up. The last time a TV character started out with this much stacked against him was when we met Bryan Cranston's Walter White at the start of another AMC series, Breaking Bad. Franklin, too, is facing a terminal medical diagnosis. His teen son is autistic, and the murder case he ends up taking — after his intended retirement — is full of twists, turns and unforeseen dangers. His activities, in and out of court, begin affecting his wife's political aspirations, and vice versa.

A staff writer on 61st Street, this first season, is Sarah Beckett, whose most recent credit is the SYFY Network series Resident Alien, a fanciful series about an outer-space alien living on Earth in human form. 61st Street is much more serious — and much more unrelenting. It's also too obvious, with most characters, including that lieutenant and politician, saying precisely what they think, and saying it too often, rather than letting anything go unsaid. The acting, I can't fault — but given the lack of subtlety with which this show's messages are being presented, I worry about its conclusion — and whether, in the end, 61st Street will ultimately deliver.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Corrected: May 5, 2022 at 12:00 AM EDT
The audio and a previous version of this story incorrectly states that Sarah Beckett was the primary writer of season one. She was a staff writer; the primary writer/showrunner was Peter Moffat.
David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.