Courtney B. Vance as Franklin Roberts and Tosin Cole as...

Courtney B. Vance as Franklin Roberts and Tosin Cole as Moses Johnson - 61st Street _ Season 1, Episode 4 - Photo Credit: George Burns/AMC Credit: AMC/George Burns

SERIES "61st Street"

WHEN|WHERE Premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on AMC

 WHAT IT'S ABOUT Moses Johnson (British actor Tosin Cole) is a high school champion sprinter from Chicago's South Side, about to enter college on a scholarship, when one afternoon he meets up with his brother, Joshua (Bentley Green), on a street corner. They're almost immediately swept up in a police sting that goes badly wrong, and Johnson takes off with one of the cops, Michael Rossi (Patrick Mulvey), in pursuit. Rossi scales a fence and, while confronting Johnson, trips and falls. His partner, Johnny Logan (Mark O'Brien), arrives to find Rossi dead and Johnson gone. A citywide search is on.

 Meanwhile, public defender Franklin Roberts (Courtney B. Vance) discovers he has cancer and may only have months to live — a fact he hides from his wife, prominent Chicago anti-police activist, Martha Roberts (Aunjanue Ellis). Mortally ill, Franklin knows he has one major case left — Moses Johnson's.

 One other critical bit of information: Before he died, Rossi had a wire on him. He had been secretly recording his commanding officer, Lt. Brannigan (Holt McCallany), who had been taking bribes from one of the South Side's major drug gangs, the Faction. 

AMC is calling "61st Street" — created by British producer Peter Moffat — a "two-season event." The eight-episode second season drops in 2023. 


MY SAY Chicago's 61st Street runs from east to west, or straight through the middle of the city's South Side. In the series named for it, 61st Street is also a state of being and a glance at the screen hints at just what that "being" is here. The light at 61st Street is sepia-toned, washed out and drained of life. Well to the north, the sun is shining and the sky is blue. 

In the Chicago of "61st Street," north and south are night and day, while the rest of the city is split straight down the metaphoric middle too. In this Chicago, there is good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice. There's also the corrupt (the cops, especially McCallany's Brannigan) and the incorruptible (Vance's Franklin). 

Like 2016's "The Night of" — adapted from Moffat's BBC series "Criminal Justice" — "61st Street" is about an innocent man caught in a mousetrap that has little interest in his guilt or innocence, but is brutally effective at the trapping. Cole's Johnson runs in the opener but can't hide for long, and soon enough, he's swallowed whole by a justice system that doesn't have all that much interest in the outcome either.

That's the series' basic setup and lest any of this appear implausible, "61st Street" does happen to be beneficiary of perfect, if coincidental, timing. Just this past Feb., 19 convictions tied to former Chicago PD sergeant Ronald Watts were overturned, adding to more than 100 of his other convictions tossed out in recent years. (Now serving time, Watts spent a decade shaking down residents of the former Ida B. Wells housing project.) On "61st Street" Brannigan performs a few shakedowns of his own, and while his other crimes may be fictional, they're perfectly plausible in this context. 

Yes, plausible, and at moments, perhaps just a little too plausible. The hard, brutal fact of systemic racism hangs over the world of "61st Street'' like that sepia-colored filter — impermeable, oppressive, all-encompassing. It's a watchable series (this review is based on the first seven episodes), even at times compulsively watchable.

But "61st Street '' can be a hard series too. It doesn't always want viewers to like what they're seeing and doesn't seem to care whether they do or not. But it does want them to at least think about what they're seeing. Look long enough and they just might start to see the world through Franklin's eyes.   

BOTTOM LINE Hard to watch, but well-worth watching. 

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