To be a network police or medical procedural in the past decade is to want for a companion series. From there, the goal is to crawl kudzu-like across the schedule until the primetime grid is bespeckled with colons and occasionally clogged with three-hour crossover events. Still, ABC’s “The Rookie,” now in its fifth season, has never seemed an obvious choice for the Dick Wolf treatment.
Not because the show lacks ambition, though it does possess the happy-go-lucky quirk of a “Characters Welcome”-era USA drama. But “The Rookie” puts all its weight on the title character and stars the supernaturally charming Nathan Fillion, the kind of performer whose charisma can cut through even the schlockiest material. Creating a spinoff would require an equally charismatic performer who, like Fillion, can go from gravitas to goofiness at a moment’s notice. Enter Niecy Nash-Betts, just such a performer, to topline “The Rookie: Feds,” a show well-crafted and thoughtful enough to feel like more than a perfunctory franchise expansion.
Rather than carve out a couple of cops from the original series, “Feds” stars Nash-Betts as Simone Clark, a new character introduced in “The Rookie” in a two-part backdoor pilot in April. Like Fillion’s John Nolan, who recurs in the early episodes of “Feds,” Simone is in the midst of a radical career reinvention. After decades spent immersing herself in abnormal psychology as a high-school guidance counselor, she decides her experience would be well applied to criminal profiling and becomes the oldest recruit ever to join the FBI.
An Emerald City tornado later, Simone is out of Quantico, back in Los Angeles and rooming with her father Cutty (Frankie Faison), who was also amply introduced in the backdoor pilot. As the survivor of an unjust incarceration, a police reform activist, and a silver fox on the prowl, Cutty is justifiably concerned about how living with his cop daughter might cramp his style. Police shows have struggled to adapt to a post-George Floyd world in which audiences have less of an appetite for uncritical hero worship where law enforcement is concerned. The relationship between Simone and Cutty builds an organic voice of dissent into “Feds” from the outset.
That’s just one of the shrewd choices in a fiendishly clever premise from creators Alexi Hawley and Terence Paul Winter, who prior to their work on “The Rookie,” served as showrunners for Fillion’s earlier character-driven procedural, “Castle.” Simone’s hard left into law enforcement is just different enough from John Nolan’s and allows “Feds” to tell the sort of stories “The Rookie” can’t quite pull off these days. After all, once the fish has been thriving on land for four seasons, the fish-out-of-water plots yield diminishing returns. And with Simone’s FBI unit in the same city as John’s LAPD squad, the two shows can hash out jurisdictional squabbles in potential crossover episodes without many contrivances.
Simone’s new team includes head honcho Matt Garza (Felix Solis) and experienced agents Laura Stenson (Britt Robertson) and Carter Hope (James Lesure), both tasked with training newbies. There’s also Brendon Acres (Kevin Zegers), another FBI guppy trying to earn his stripes alongside Simone after leaving behind an acting career. The Acres character threatens to tip “Feds” a bit too far in a comedic direction — he previously starred in a show called “Vampire Cop” — especially with a seasoned comedic performer like Nash-Betts as the lead. That said, it’s interesting to have two pairs of odd couple partnerships, even though the show is lopsided in favor of Simone and Carter’s prickly partnership rather than the one between Brendon and Laura.
Of course, the whole show is built on Simone’s foundation, and the character is intriguing and fun to be around. That’s in part because Nash-Betts brings her whole self to the character, including her fluid sexuality, which is introduced within the three episodes sent to critics. There’s even a guest spot from Jessica Betts, Nash-Betts’ real-life spouse, who plays Simone’s love interest. The casting stunt lands somewhere between “too cute by half” and “genuinely adorable,” but it’s part of an admirable and fruitful endeavor to create a unique character in a genre full of generic brooding men. As long as the producers keep relying on Nash-Betts’ deep well of charm and character, “Feds” has real potential.
“The Rookie: Feds” premieres Sept. 27 at 10 p.m. on ABC and streams on Hulu the next day.