AMC’s 61st Street is a Heavy-Handed Legal Thriller

How audiences feel about the new AMC series “61st Street,” an agonizing legal thriller concerning police brutality set on the South Side of Chicago, will depend on whether creator Peter Moffat sticks the landing. The often maligned area of America’s third largest city is marked by several defining features: grassy lots left empty for decades; the omnipresent rumble of the elevated train; densely populated street corners; malicious and roving police vehicles. Most of all, for anyone who’s called this clime home (for transparency, I was raised on the city’s West Side), it’s the vibrant people, dedicated Black folks living each day for their kin, proudly defying the odds, who are its greatest landmarks. If only the series didn’t muddle those same people. 

On its face, “61st Street” labors to give the residents of the neighborhood a voice. A brief note for any geographically uninitiated viewers: the series takes place in the affluent African American corner of Hyde Park (the Obamas once lived there) and the economically disparate Woodlawn community. Two train lines, the Green and the Red, shape the boundaries of both neighborhoods, with the Red line in particular forming the central vein, running south to north, from the poorer, predominantly Black areas to the city’s well-off white population. 

In this setting, Moses Johnson (Tosin Cole), a talented African American runner in the 400m, unwittingly becomes embroiled in a larger systematic war within Chicago’s police department. Opposite Moses is dedicated public defender Franklin Roberts (Courtney B. Vance), a family man battling cancer. Their paths intersect when a drug bust gone wrong implicates the innocent Moses in the accidental death of police officer Michael Rossi. These characters propel the series, fighting for liberation and equal treatment, steeling their hearts against corruption, and hoping against hope to reach their respective dreams. But “61st Street,” for all its best intentions, struggles to tell these the stories of these two men. The series provides grim and frank lessons concerning race, but cannot avoid blotting out the real character of the people it hopes to defend in lieu of heart-wrenching tribulations. 

From the jump, every character dotting the series executive produced by Michael B. Jordan and Vance is difficult to pin down, from the police, to the drug dealers, parents, and lawyers. They all see Rossi’s death and Moses’ trial as golden opportunities. The underhanded goon Lt. Tardelli (Holt McCallany) thinks the tragedy can turn the anti-police tide in his favor, uniting the department while keeping its shady dealings obscured from public view. Roberts believes the clear frame job opens a chance for systematic reform. His wife Martha (a captivating and powerful Aunjanue Ellis), running for Alderman, promises to combat over-policing, and this moment provides her further evidence atop a mountain of other tragic examples. The warring gangs, the Nation and the Faction, see an excuse to consolidate power. Even Moses’ fellow inmates, led by his imprisoned father, view him as another soldier in their jailhouse fights. 

What chance do Black folks have when the deck is always stacked against them? Moffat aims to show just how stacked it is. Wiretapping. Deceitful interrogations. Physical and psychological torture. Planting evidence. Turning family on family. And the police wield these tactics not just against Moses, they also gleefully do so against his steadfast mother Norma (Andrene Ward-Hammond) and his brother Joshua (Bentley Green). In fact, the bail money to release Moses runs so high Joshua turns to dealing drugs to help his brother. The crushing inequities, often driven by racial oppression, cause everyone in Moses’ orbit to resort to less-than-legal means to help him. The impossible situation serves as a parallel with the decision many young Black men and women are faced with everyday to protect their kin. Because in “61st Street,” as in life, there are no perfect victims.   

It’s dispiriting, then, how much Moffat’s series struggles to keep one’s interest. Other than an elaborately shot foot chase between empty lots, broken fences and cramped alleyways, a chase that does little to introduce viewers to the community space, people and full geography of the South Side, “61st Street” is a collection of distressing episodes that only have room for serious politics and generational pains. In that way, you can tell how much of an outsider the British Moffat is to the Windy City. 

Aesthetically, the series relies on two types of lighting: a dingy pale-blue shade for scenes featuring cops and a turgid rust for everyone else. “61st Street” believes that harsh tones automatically equal importance. If the series’ point is to humanize the South Side, then why render it merely as a desolate wasteland? Anyone who lives there knows the richer varieties of life teeming from every corner. But you wouldn’t know it by watching this visually unappealing series. Instead, the show optically confirms every outsider’s worst nightmare. For instance, one of the few joyous scenes, a cookout raising money for Moses’ defense, is muddied by the mark of self-aggrandizement, as though no celebratory moment on the South Side can’t exist without conflict. 

The series’ heavy hand with character forces the viewer into submission. The brutish Lt. Tardelli leans too psychopathic and veers toward cartoonish territory, while Rossi’s former partner, Officer Logan (Mark O'Brien), who’s privately investigating the suspicious circumstances surrounding his partner’s death, appears to be the opposite of those ills. Neither of these characters are real people. They’re extremes that give the viewer comfort to know they can never be as bad Tardelli, and that lights do exist like Logan. A more truthful series would connect how complicit Logan is by merely being a police officer. There are odd, broad brush strokes by Moffat, a former barrister, especially considering the series feels painfully aware of the complicity on the part of Black cops: The African American men and women held in custody often trade knowing glances with Black police officers, each side registering the treacherous gulf between them. 

Much of the show switches between two locations: the hostile penitentiary holding Moses and Franklin’s home. A smaller subplot involving the defense attorney’s autistic young son, David (Jarell Maximillian Sullivan), one of the series’ few genuine aspects, yearns for Sullivan to have a fuller speaking role. The relationship the father and son share, in a series consumed by the responsibilities Black parents in particular have to shepherd their children through an unforgiving, racist world, is equally affecting, especially since Vance and Sullivan share a free repertoire. But it’s the steady Cole, new to US audiences, who teases a depth that viewers, even after six episodes, will pine for the series to ultimately deliver. I found myself wishing that “61st Street” focused on Moses and its other Black characters rather feeling than the police’s perspective.

Instead, “61st Street” throws a myriad of complex arcs in the air, leaving viewers to wait for their fall before deciding whether the time invested was worth it. And while nothing in Moffat’s all-too bleak legal series offends the spirit, nothing feeds it either.      

Six episodes screened for review.

Posted by Contributor