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Review: Few surprises in Nathan Fillion's 'The Rookie' on ABC

Review: Few surprises in Nathan Fillion's 'The Rookie' on ABC
Titus Makin, left, Melissa O'Neil and Nathan Fillion in the squad room of ABC's new series "The Rookie." (Tony Rivetti/ABC)

Answering the unasked storytelling question of “What if ‘Training Day’ got older and way more sentimental?” ABC’s newcomer “The Rookie” follows a recent divorced man who trades his small town life for the big city adventures of the LAPD.

Premiering Tuesday, the series centers on the specifically surprising if generally familiar midlife reinvention of fortysomething John Nolan (Nathan Fillion), a trope smartly acknowledged through his skeptical sergeant (Richard T. Jones) as “an ‘Eat Pray Love’ path.”

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Though self-aware enough to appear as a teen fantasy version of himself in the Netflix animated series “Big Mouth,” Fillion still has the handsome version of what casting directors call an “everyman quality”; he looks as natural in a pickup truck as a uniform, and he can appear beleaguered but quick-witted and earnest as well as anyone on TV.

Fillion’s strengths are key, because despite the show’s best efforts to drape multiple dramatic storylines around him in the one episode ABC made available to review, there’s just not a lot that stands out otherwise.

Reuniting Fillion with his “Castle” executive producer Alexi Hawley, the show is set in motion by a chance encounter at a bank in Nolan’s small Pennsylvania town, during which a conversation about his next move is thrown into stark relief by a robbery attempt. Stammering, Nolan tells the thief his life story, offering a suitable distraction before the police save the day. That next move, it seems, is made clear.

Nine months later, in sunny Los Angeles, we meet Nolan the rookie (or, in LAPD parlance, “boot”) as he reports for duty alongside two fellow academy graduates in Officer West — the overachieving, by-the-book son of an LAPD commander (Titus Makin), and Officer Chen (Melissa O’Neil), a therapist’s daughter with something to prove who is one of Nolan’s confidants.

The show fragments as each rookie pairs off with his or her training officer — Chen with the hard-nosed Bradford (Eric Winter), West with the ambitious Lopez (Alyssa Diaz) —but neither is as interesting as Fillion’s Nolan.

Promisingly, the show brushes against a few real issues as Bradford hints at racist views under the guise of live training with a truckload of Spanish speakers, and Chen mentions challenges that she faces as a woman on the force.

Otherwise, the series seems content to follow the cop-show playbook. Body cameras are used in frequent cutaways in a distracting effort to heighten the show’s tension, and the LAPD is uniformly populated by dedicated public servants who sing karaoke after their shifts and shoot-to-wound. Jones’ sergeant says things like “protocol and tradition are the metal from which every cop in this city is forged” in declaring himself Nolan’s biggest obstacle toward acceptance. And for all of Bradford’s bullying, his posturing unsurprisingly conceals a heart of gold that Chen sees during a chance encounter with a woman from his past while they’re on patrol.

Even Nolan’s potential fish-out-of-water move to L.A. is cushioned by his living in an unseen college friend’s guest house, a glass-enclosed palace with coastal views.

Long proved adept with comedy, Fillion claims some solid one-liners in the first episode — “You know why I do this job, Officer Nolan?” his gruff sergeant asks. “Because you’re a people person?” Nolan replies, deadpan — but he is frustratingly under-utilized.

It’s a breezy drama that doesn’t demand much from the viewer, but Fillion’s easy charm is tough to dismiss. “We are in this moment together,” Nolan says in a standoff with a man holding a knife to a woman’s throat. “I became a cop to help people not kill them.”

It’s an empathetic, unconventional approach that ultimately works. “The Rookie” should consider more of them.

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‘The Rookie’

Where: ABC

When: 10 p.m. Tuesday

Rated: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for coarse language and violence)

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