Given that NBC’s new drama Taxi Brooklyn is debuting in the middle of June—on a Tuesday—it’s far better than a summer burn-off cop drama ought to be. Bizarrely, Taxi Brooklyn is a spin-off of Luc Besson’s 1998 action-comedy Taxi, which inspired an American film remake starring Queen Latifah and Jimmy Fallon. It takes a careful observer to link the two, though. On its face, Taxi Brooklyn could be any number of generic cop dramas that sweep through NBC’s lineup—it’s set in New York, focuses on an unlikely pair of investigators, and gets through one big case every episode.
The twist is—you guessed it—taxis. One half of the buddy-cop duo is in fact a police detective. But her driver’s license has been revoked numerous times because she is a bad driver. So in the first episode, she asks the taxi driver she just arrested to take her around town. That turns into the premise for the whole show—Cat, as she is called, rings Leo and asks for a lift. Leo shows up, tires squealing, New York City taxi license number prominently displayed. He takes her from scene to scene, and along the way, they bicker.
It almost doesn’t work at all. Detective Cat Sullivan’s slim excuse for not being able to drive—she’s bad at it—is barely a premise. (She could have been disabled in an accident, or an alcoholic, or afraid of driving, even. Why just “bad”?) And Leo’s availability at all hours is suspicious at best. New York taxi companies are notorious for extracting huge percentages from their taxi drivers; how could Leo drive Cat around for free and still manage to keep his job?
Fortunately, the show is aiming middlebrow enough that it is just smart enough—and just dumb enough. Some of the conversations between Cat and Leo in the first two episodes suggest that the show will delve into the details of Cat’s issues with driving, or at the very least, will start to actually pay Leo for all the free fares he’s giving away. And the rest of the show is silly enough that such mundane concerns don’t really matter. (In a direct homage to Besson’s film, at one point he drives so recklessly that she opens the door and vomits.) She’s a cop. He drives really fast. That’s it; that’s the whole story.
It wouldn’t be tenable without a strong pair at the middle to hold down the fort. Fortunately, Taxi Brooklyn has found a gold mine in Jacky Ido, who plays the French immigrant cabbie Leo. Ido’s French accent is not a put-on—in the pilot, he lapses into French a few times when talking to Leo’s son. Ido’s Leo is by turns charming, phobic, and incisive; he has a knack for investigation that rivals Cat’s, and he balances it out with a good humor that she never manifests. Where Cat is the good-girl police officer, Leo knows the guy who knows the other guy; he knows how many minutes it would take to dump a body in the harbor. It seems reductive to call him street-savvy while Cat is book-smart, but that’s at least part of what the show is playing with.
Chyler Leigh’s Cat is not nearly so interesting. She’s tolerably appealing, but her story—dead dad, mysterious circumstances, promises made to avenge his murder—seems cliché by comparison. She’s a necessary foil for Leo’s guileless genius, the Watson to Leo’s Holmes, as he finds clues and she calls them in. (In a rare moment of self-conscious humor, she calls him not just Sherlock but also Columbo.) And as the native New Yorker, she has the family and the responsibilities that keep the show ticking forward.
What really sets Taxi Brooklyn apart is that it tells a story about New York that feels fresh. Primarily, that comes down to Ido’s character, who is nothing short of revolutionary for American television. Leo is a black, French, ex-con cabbie, fighting immigration issues on one hand and money problems on the other. He is an embodiment of a side of New York that most cinema and television about the city never offer—that third-world sensibility washed ashore on a first-world city. It’s a city of immigrants, but it’s easy to forget that watching Sex And The City or Girls or The Newsroom. That’s not the case with Leo and Taxi Brooklyn. In the second episode, Leo’s hauled away by Immigration Services, just as he and Cat have solved a case—suggesting that this constant reminder of the reality of life in New York City is part of the show’s mission. Certainly that would dovetail with the theme of Besson’s film, which offers a look at the real Marseille, warts and all.
The producers behind Taxi Brooklyn have also worked to make the show feel like New York, the way that Law And Order tried to. It’s clearly filmed on location, and though at times the show takes that a little too seriously—Cat and Leo get bogged down in an argument about how difficult it really is to find a cab in Brooklyn that is trying way too hard—the maze of fire escapes and subway lines, punctuated by construction jackhammers, taxi cabs, and NYPD officers, offers a very real glimpse of New York City. At one point, Cat chases down a criminal in Coney Island; establishing shots show a mish-mash of colored awnings, seedy bodegas, and Orthodox Jewish men.
It is, undoubtedly, all a bit silly. This is a show where an actual, un-ironic line is: “Anytime you need a ride, you call, and I’ll be there.” And the casework is hardly realistic or sophisticated. But Leo is too interesting to give up on the show just yet. And Franck Ollivier, who developed the concept for American television, made the choice to make Émilien’s character from the film into a woman—adding an interesting shade to the proceedings, as the “loser cop” from Taxi is now a hard-as-nails and bitter woman-cop. There is a high chance that Leo and Cat will be thrown against each other romantically—but there’s also the possibility that the two will maintain their irritable bickering while pursuing others, like Elementary pulled off with Joan and Sherlock.
But what Taxi Brooklyn recalls most is USA’s Sirens, which was itself modeled after a British show. There’s something lighthearted about the proceedings, murder and mayhem aside, because the show is more interested in the character drama than the procedure. Taxi Brooklyn embraces the New York-ness of both its main characters, and that bodes well for its future—and provides something fascinating to watch through the summer, in the meantime.