Combine one part Law and Order cop procedural with one part Brothers and Sisters family melodrama, add a dash of handsome, ambitious young gun, and you have Golden Boy, CBS's latest primetime drama.
The show follows the rise of William Walter Clark Jr. (Theo James), an ambitious, low level police officer. His story is told in flashbacks from seven years into the future, with Clark serving at New York City police commissioner—and where the series will presumably conclude.
"You have basically a guy at the beginning of his journey and he has everything at his feet. ... And then you have a guy at the end of that particular section of his journey," James says. "And in that journey the difference between the two characters is very marked, between someone who is young, naïve, and ambitious, and someone who is a little bit broken physically and emotionally, and everything that he lost along the way."
Aside from the obvious flashback device, Golden Boy differs from typical police procedurals in that it lets multiple-episode, character-driven arcs drive its narrative, rather than rely on the typical cop drama serial format (uncover crime, solve case, put bad guys in jail, end scene with a clean slate).
"It won't just be a random homicide. It tends to be a family member of a cop that has been shot and then the ramifications of that, or an ex-mentor of one of the cops who has been [indicted] for a corruption case, and all the politics around that," James says. "Streams and strings of narrative run though the whole a show."
Clark's climb up the political ladder begins when he is at the right crime scene at the right time, and he becomes a minor hero. He channels the instant fame to land a spot on the homicide team. Coming from an abusive, law breaking father and a heroin addict mother, "he wants to impose as much distance physically and mentally between his old life and his new one. That is the main driver [of his ambition]," James says.
"He is extremely smart and he knows he can get most things he puts his mind to."
Once at homicide, he is paired with seen-it-all veteran cop Detective Owens (Chi McBride), and the two build a father-son relationship. Clark also takes cues from younger "rockstar" cop Detective Arroyo (Kevin Alejandro), who feeds into the flashier sides of Clark's ego.
"[Clark] makes a lot of mistakes" says cocreator and executive producer Nicholas Wootton, an alum of Law and Order and a number of other police dramas. "He's willing to do things that are illegal, essentially. He does things that are just simply wrong."
Wootton cut his teeth working on NYPD Blue, where he started as a production assistant for creator Steven Bochco's company, and worked his way to the writing staff, eventually winning an Emmy with the writing team at the age of 26. "[Golden Boy's] DNA is my experience at NYPD Blue and the real character development of that show."
He teams up with coexecutive producer Greg Berlanti, the master of melodrama behind Brothers and Sisters and Political Animals. The two each have "equal and opposite" bags of tricks—Wootton's from his experience in police procedurals and Berlanti's from his work on family dramas, and they blend together for the show, Wootton says.
Golden Boy's filming returns Wootton to New York, his early stomping grounds. "The best thing about being in New York is you really get to feed off the energy of what's going on in the city," Wootton says. "These are high emotions and high egos and alpha dogs clawing at one another, for high stakes stuff; you can ground that very nicely in a crime drama that takes place in a city like New York."
James, who hails from Great Britain (you may recognize him from his turn as Kemal Pamuk on Downton Abbey), agrees. "Being in New York—that was the most important thing."
James read controversial cop Bernie Kerik's autobiography and other police novels to prepare for the role and hired an accent coach to master Clark's New York staccato. He also spent time with real New York cops: tagging along on ride-alongs, going to dinner with their friends and families, and hanging around other establishments to learn about police culture. "Drinking in cop bars, having tequilas—that's when you get the real stories, when you start getting s---faced with people," James says.