TV critics love to point out that the difference between Canadian urban drama and American urban drama is tidiness — cleaner streets, graffiti-free walls. And certainly “The Bridge,” CBS’ new pickup from the north, deserves points for neatness. But in this case, Americans will know they’re viewing an import the moment the über narrative makes itself clear. “The Bridge” is about a street cop attempting to rid the force of corruption through … wait for it … its union.
The two-hour pilot chronicles the rise of Frank Leo ( Aaron Douglas, last seen as Galen Tyrol on “Battlestar Galactica”) from solid street cop to union boss as he struggles to battle injustice and keep police officers safe from their real enemy — the monomaniacal higher-ups.
Throughout the union is presented not only as a force for good, but a powerfully effective tool that could, under Frank’s leadership, effect real change. “You think this can’t be pulled down?” he asks, standing in front of police headquarters at the end of the second hour, having recently spearheaded a wildcat strike by simply suggesting it in a morning meeting.
In many ways, “The Bridge” is a superhero drama, with Frank wielding not the power to fly or atomic strength but the once-vaunted weapon of good faith collectivism, which went out of vogue here sometime after Sally Field picked up her Oscar for “Norma Rae.” (Am I the only one who finds it fascinating that after American TV writers spent so many hours on the picket lines three years ago, the only overtly pro-union show is Canadian?)
The socialist overtones of “The Bridge” are clear and unapologetic. Indeed, the bridge of the title is the one separating Toronto’s St. James Town projects from its posh neighbor Rosedale. “On this side here you got the poor, lying and cheating and stealing to pay the rent,” says Frank’s partner Tommy (Paul Popowich) as if speaking to a child, “and over this little bridge we go, you got the rich, lying and cheating and stealing…" “To collect the rent,” finishes Frank.
So there you are, hundreds of years of political theory reduced to a cop drama.
Clearly, creator Craig Bromell, himself a former Toronto police chief, has David Simon-like aspirations. As in “The Wire,” the corruption in the Toronto police department is systemic rather than the work of one or two villains (although the early appearance of an almost laughably Nazi-like female deputy chief assures us that Canada’s reputation for mildness does not preclude sexism).
But “The Bridge” does not have the depth, or the patience, of “The Wire.” In the pilot, things happen far too quickly and over-dramatically. Someone is using stolen police uniforms to steal from drug dealers and someone else is running down homeless people. Members of Frank’s Bridge Division face not one but two police brutality charges that we learn are simply attempts by the brass to leverage a prosecutor’s personal zeal for greater glory. Meanwhile, when Frank’s mentor kills himself, Frank manages to personally organize a police funeral (not allowed for suicides) but not without a price. The top dogs are now officially out to get him, through means that are so over the top you expect Jack Bauer to put in a special-guest appearance.
Anchoring all this wild-eyed I-sing-of-the-man-in-uniform preachifying is Douglas’ commanding performance and an equally strong supporting cast that includes Michael Murphy as the waffling but perhaps enigmatic chief of police and Stuart Margolin as Frank’s father, a longtime police union organizer who may have buried a few bodies of his own. The members of the Bridge precinct all have promise — Popowich as Tommy, Theresa Joy as Billy who wants to prove she’s just as tough as the guys — and of course, there’s an attractive prosecutor (Ona Grauer) who is drawn to Frank because of his rebellious sense of justice.
Although overblown in message and action, “The Bridge” is well-performed and worth watching if only to see if it will stand by its thesis: that real change comes from people working together. Or if it will succumb to the standards of the time and evolve into yet another show in which a male lead battles forces within and without to discover who he really is. This time in Canada.