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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Queen Latifah brings compassion, charm to a reimagined Equalizer

Queen Latifah stars in The Equalizer
Queen Latifah stars in The Equalizer
Photo: Barbara Nitke/CBS
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Robyn McCall (Queen Latifah) walks into a dark room in Coney Island where some scuzzy guys are holding a young woman (Lorna Courtney) against her will. McCall politely but firmly asks them to let her go, but the men don’t listen. They tell her to mind her own business, and McCall responds, “I tried that, but I’m really bad at it.” Then she makes short work of the creeps. It’s a moment I’ve seen countless times already, but the Queen made it feel fresh.

The Equalizer, which premiered after the Super Bowl on CBS last night, is somehow more than the sum of its predictable parts. The series isn’t just a gender-flipped update of the 1980s TV show starring Edward Woodward and the Denzel Washington films from 2014 and 2018. It’s heartfelt and engaging. This has a lot to do with Queen Latifah, who’s a joy to watch. She’s funny and sweet, while also badass.

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Robyn is haunted by her past as a former CIA agent. The specifics are deliberately mysterious, but we know something went wrong and she had to leave. Her former boss, William Bishop (Chris Noth), wants her back, but she confides that what keeps her up at night is the feeling that she didn’t help enough people. I love that guilt isn’t what motivates her. She’s not seeking redemption. Anyone who’s reached middle age and a degree of success in their careers can relate to that nagging feeling that you could’ve done more, made a more significant impact in the world.

The young woman Robyn saves is Jewel Machado, who’s been framed for murder and is on the run. Robyn believes her story and offers her unique set of skills. Jewel wonders, “Who do you go to when you can’t go to the cops?” and that simple question lands quite differently when it’s a Black woman talking to another Black woman.

Robyn provides sanctuary for Jewel, which is an effective way of introducing her crew, who are more like a second family. There’s Melody (Liza Lapira), a former Air Force sniper who now runs a bar, but here’s the coolest thing: Underneath the bar is a sleek, high-tech hacking operation. Yes, Robyn has access to a Batcave. Melody later patches up Robyn’s injuries there like a far more attractive Alfred.

Melody’s husband, Harry (Adam Goldberg), is the hacker in residence. Robyn helped Harry fake his death in a previous noodle incident. She even introduced him to Melody because she’s just that cool. Robyn doesn’t seem to make enemies aside from the assholes she deservingly takes down.

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This week’s asshole villain is Reese Pruitt (Michael Rady, who previously played another Big Tech heavy on Lucifer). He’s an Elon Musk-type who’s about to offer the world self-driving cars. There’s not much of a mystery here, but it’s fun to watch Robyn and her team outsmart him. The climax, when Robyn confronts a terrified Pruitt, feels like a moment from my idealized Batman series. Just give the sister a cape.

Tory Kittles plays Detective Marcus Dante, who the series nicely sets up as Robyn’s Commissioner Gordon and possible love interest. He’s the honest man at the NYPD, and yes, he’s Black. This is another way The Equalizer is more revolutionary than it might seem. When Robyn poses as a public defender after the cops apprehend Jewel, Dante advises her not to make a plea deal. He believes she’s innocent, as well. This is where my suspension of disbelief was most tested. But it worked. I like Dante and think the two have solid chemistry.

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The series was developed by former Castle producers Andrew W. Marlowe and Terri Edda Miller, but you can feel Queen Latifah’s influence as co-executive producer. She won a grammy for the 1993 hip-hop song, “U.N.I.T.Y,” and that theme is present in The Equalizer: Women look out for each other, they believe in each other, they support each other.

Robyn lives with her 15-year-old daughter, Delilah (Laya DeLeon Hayes), who doesn’t know about her mother’s dual identity. She thinks she worked for a charity, which I suppose is now technically true. When Delilah is caught shoplifting, Robyn takes her to a women’s prison where the population is predominately Black. This is more than just a tough love warning about how the world sees young Black women. Robyn confesses that she once stole a car at 17, but the judge (a woman) saw her potential and offered her a choice — army or prison. Maybe that’s not how the actual world works, but wouldn’t it be great it if was? The scared straight scene is further flipped on its head, because Robyn doesn’t just show her daughter a worst-case scenario and drive away. No, she wants Delilah to volunteer at the prison, to help change lives. Robyn believes everyone can be saved. This is the hero we need most in 2021.

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Stray observations

  • Queen Latifah is only the fifth Black woman to lead an hourlong broadcast network drama series. She’s also 50 and sending suckers to nap land. It’s awesome.
  • Lorraine Toussaint plays Robyn’s Aunt Viola. Let’s hope she has more to do in future episodes.
  • I greatly appreciate that there was no woman in the refrigerator moment that inspired Robyn’s heroism. Jewel survives and Robyn even takes her to her college interview.
  • When Pruitt answers his phone with, “She dead?” and Robyn responds, “No, but she is pissed,” I pumped my fist.
  • The pilot boasts some great location filming and action set pieces, especially when Robyn takes out a police van and rescues Jewel.
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