In 1985, New York City was a graffiti-daubed, crime-ridden cesspit, where cops, hog-tied by red tape and rules, were unable to protect the law-abiding little people who lived in the five boroughs. That, at least, was the message of The Equalizer, a CBS procedural that premiered in the fall of that year. Edward Woodward played Robert McCall, an unprepossessing middle-aged former spy who used his smarts, his impressive marksmanship, and occasionally his old agency pals to bring about justice when the authorities couldn’t or wouldn’t. The shoot-’em-up action often involved what a pedantic person might call extrajudicial killings—which, coming a year after “subway vigilante” Bernard Goetz shot four young men on the 2 train, came with several suitcases of quis custodiet ipsos custodes baggage.
Thirty-six years later, New York’s subways are spray-paint-free and street crime is much less of an issue—but it’s clearer than ever that the system is rigged. Enter, in CBS’s series reboot, an Equalizer for our times. Queen Latifah is Robyn McCall, newly sprung from the CIA and dealing with PTSD, guilt about bad stuff she did in places like Venezuela and Afghanistan, and a demanding teenage daughter.
In the pilot’s opening minutes, Robyn is at a dramatically inert loose end, but by an amazing series of coincidences she soon finds herself in a very photogenic part of the city where Jewel, an Afro-Latinx teenager, is about to fall victim to some very disagreeable criminals. Robyn’s meet-gross with Jewel sets off a pleasingly complicated investigation and meting out of justice with more than enough explosions, costume changes, and social commentary to justify The Equalizer’s cushy premiere slot right after the Super Bowl.
In the new series, the evil forces that need equalizing aren’t so much individual ne’er-do-wells but huge corporations and systemic forces that place more value on some lives than others. The miraculous thing is that the pilot manages to be both fantastically unlikely and weirdly believable. During its punchy, bangy 45 minutes, it didn’t seem totally crazy that a tech gazillionaire would personally plot to sabotage the life of a hard-working teenager who has been left alone in the big city after her mother was deported. That’s just how evil those guys are, right?
It’s tough for a charismatic figure like Queen Latifah to inhabit a chilly character like Robyn, whose aim is to go unnoticed at best, underestimated at least, by authorities and bad guys alike. She compromises by allowing momentary joy to sneak through after particularly satisfying ass-kickings. She also appears to have negotiated a reasonable allowance of verbal putdowns—getting to call her former CIA handler William Bishop (Chris Noth) a “bitch” and to comment on his “skinny ass.” When Denzel Washington played a Boston-based version of Robert McCall in 2014 and 2018 movies, he emphasized the character’s discipline and seemed to be expending as much effort on tamping down his personal magnetism as he was on hiding his fighting skills.
McCall’s superficial blandness is compensated for by some especially colorful supporting characters. Her main helpers are a couple she fought with in Afghanistan: Mel Bayani (Liza Lapira), who now runs a bar that’s supposed to read as super edgy, and Mel’s spectacularly tattooed husband Harry Kashegian (Adam Goldberg), a white-hat hacker whose death Robyn helped to fake. Given the football-field-sized monitor and the massive array of computing power he has at his disposal, dead men must run up huge electric bills.
The almost magical properties of the technology most of us carry around in our pockets, along with the sense that everything is hackable, have been a boon to the writers of procedural dramas. A crucial location or a private conversation can be revealed with the exposition-avoiding click of a keyboard. (The 1980s version of McCall spent an awful lot of time dropping dimes into pay phones.) The Equalizer uses this technological time-saving to make room for social commentary, including what is probably the first Black parent-child conversation about racism and almost definitely the first Black Lives Matter placard to appear on a CBS drama. It’s especially potent that it’s airing right after an event staged by the NFL, which has drummed players out of the league for protesting racial injustice but is now featuring a young Black poet as part of its halftime show.
Eventually, Robyn, like the other McCalls before her, decides to make her justice-seeking services available to all who need them. In the 1980s, Robert made that offer in a newspaper classified ad, and in 2021 Robyn posts an anonymous comment on an online forum. But the language remains the same: “GOT A PROBLEM? ODDS AGAINST YOU?” If so, call the Equalizer. In this age of inequality, there will surely be no shortage of Davids asking for help battling their own personal Goliaths—or for that matter, Amazons.
The Equalizer is one of the first CBS procedurals to premiere since last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. Back then, some critics dinged CBS, which has long dominated the ratings with cop-worshipping dramas, for the network’s tepid response to the racial reckoning. This show, which features a Black Robyn Hood at its center, and a Black male cop whose commitment to justice has him chafing against the system he’s part of, was greenlighted before George Floyd was killed, but its timing couldn’t be better.
Correction, Feb. 8, 2021: This article originally misstated that Amanda Gorman’s poem would be part of the Super Bowl’s halftime show. It aired before the game.