The Equalizer (2021)

2 out of 5

Developed by: Andrew W. Marlowe & Terri Edda Miller

covers season 1

By now, we’re all aware that there exists a certain type of easy-to-swallow action drama that’s aimed at a demographic we’ll call “our parents,” and that many of those shows reside on CBS. It’s a niche, a comforting one, and many people who aren’t “our parents” enjoy these shows, while some comparable amount of us might roll our eyes at it. (Accepting that we, too, have our own marketed-to-us fare, equally eyeroll worthy in its own way…)

On the whole, I have no problem with these shows, though I don’t actively watch them. They seem, for the most part, self-aware of their limitations – of what they’re doing – and stay in their lane with it. The Equalizer is on CBS, and it has a 1980s TV to base itself on, so it definitely has the DNA of this generalized genre wended into it. But then there were also two modern day, “gritty” film takes that rebooted the series, and The Equalizer of 2021 feels more directly indebted to those flicks for tone, going with something of a darker look and a grounded characterization for its lead – single mom / secret vigilante Robyn McCall, played by Queen Latifah – that suggests the show is trying to skew towards a typically younger crowd.

Or, like, both.

And that just doesn’t work.

Robyn McCall is The Equalizer, a onetime super secret agent, now retired, called back in to the game by the CIA, but instead arranging a deal in which she’ll assist as needed, given she can work on her own initiatives in the meantime, called into action as her nom de plume via, uh, internet requests. Modern! Assisting Robyn is a duo of tech and sharpshooting (Adam Goldberg; Liza Lapira), who can alternately do Anything, No Problem or There’s No Way We Can Do That, as needed for that episode’s story, and often flip-flopping between the two on the same topic within a few minutes and based on the most blase of sudden insight by McCall. Love/hating Robyn is cop Tory Kittles, forever stuck doing his Denzel Washington impression, and appreciating that she wants to help the less fortunate, but grimacing at her danged vigilante ways of doing so.

That’s a snarky summary, but it’s certainly a viable setup for a weekly dose of distraction. The problem, as mentioned, is the wholly divided way in which this is approached, attempting to mix a more current sense of awareness of racial and social issues with easy-going, everything’s-good-after-forty-minutes digestibility, and a frustrating lack of any tactical or technical realism that would suggest that McCall or her crew actually know what they’re doing better than anyone else. It’s just so bland, and no episode seems willing to go deep enough down any particular avenue to become satisfying as fluff, or for action, or as drama, or as a buddy-cop-ish comedy. It is, instead, the relative grimness of latter-day Person of Interest told with NCIS hand-waiving.

Latifah carries it, though. She’s fun to watch, and makes the mom/rogue dynamic believable enough. And although Goldberg and Lapira don’t have the material to support their various crafts all that well, they fill the counterpoint banter angle well, and I like that the whole team gets very in to whatever mission Robyn has picked up – like, no one on her side doubts in what they’re doing. Laya DeLeon Hayes, playing McCall’s daughter, is also a good inclusion, giving weight to the role so that the vigilante’s homelife – in which she hides her secret job – is a pleasing component of the show.

The airing of episodes of The Equalizer wasn’t very predictable in terms of timing – some weeks on, some weeks not – but it seemed to have made its way to a second season. Keeping it to a short 10-episode season at least seemed to allow it to stay on an even keel of blandness the whole time, and perhaps with a formula established, it can come back with a bit more focus on tone next year.