ABC's 'The Rookie' will plug into national debate on police next season

Stephen Battaglio
Nathan Fillion in "The Rookie," which returns this fall for a third season on ABC.  (Tony Rivetti / ABC)

As the nation grapples with police brutality and racism in wake of the death of George Floyd, that discussion will find its way into the third season of ABC's cop drama "The Rookie."

ABC Entertainment President Karey Burke said Tuesday in an interview that the series starring Nathan Fillion as a middle-age newcomer to the LAPD would reflect the issues that have arisen since Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was killed in Minneapolis police custody on May 25.

The nationwide protests over Floyd have led to scrutiny of TV's role in perpetuating police heroism and misrepresenting Black people. Two reality series on police work — Paramount Network's "Cops" and A&E's "Live PD" — have been canceled amid concerns that they contribute to distorted views of law enforcement (ABC parent Walt Disney Co. co-owns A&E with Hearst).

Burke is hopeful that the writers and producers on "The Rookie" can realistically address those issues.

“Our showrunner Alexi Hawley is seeking out new voices and important voices to help inform and frame the stories he is telling this season," Burke said.

Hawley has representatives from Color of Change, a consulting firm focusing on racial diversity in the entertainment industry, in the show's virtual writers room.

He has also consulted with Ryan Tillman, founder of Breaking Barriers United, an organization focused on improving the relationship between police and the communities they serve. Tillman is a Black officer in the Chino Police Department.

"The cast of ‘The Rookie’ is already quite diverse," Burke said, "and they are going to be working to be thoughtful about the stories they are telling about those characters.”

The production team for "The Rookie" was investigated last year after actress Afton Williamson, who is Black, said she was sexually harassed and faced racial discrimination on the show's set. The outside firm that conducted the probe said that the people named in Williamson's allegations did not conduct themselves in an inappropriate or unlawful way and that Hawley addressed her concerns in a timely matter. Williamson left the show after its first season.

The Floyd case has intensified the spotlight on media companies' record on diversity issues. ABC News is currently investigating a report that alleges veteran executive Barbara Fedida made racist comments about the network's on-air talent. She is currently on administrative leave.

ABC Entertainment has a strong track record of diversity in its casting but has been making efforts to improve its record behind the camera. Burke said her division recently implemented an "executive incubator program" to help improve diversity in the management ranks.

"The Rookie" returns on a new prime-time schedule for the 2020-21 season that includes three new series.

Writer-producer David E. Kelley returns to ABC with "Big Sky," based on the C.J. Box books about private investigators in Montana. ABC also has ordered a new sitcom, titled "Call Your Mother," from writer-producer Kari Lizer. The series will star Kyra Sedgwick as an empty-nester mom.

Because the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down TV production since March, both scripted programs were ordered without pilot episodes. Burke said she was comfortable with the situation as both Kelley, whose last hit for ABC was "Boston Legal," and Lizer, who gave CBS the hit sitcom "The New Adventures of Old Christine," were proven commodities as show creators.

ABC also ordered "Supermarket Sweep," an updated version of a game show that was on the network's daytime lineup in the 1960s and later revived in syndication. Former "Saturday Night Live" cast member Leslie Jones will host.

Burke is still uncertain when production will resume, as networks are still awaiting a green light on safely resuming work. She is hopeful that scripted programs can return to work by the end of August and that reality shows will be back up and running in July.

The fall TV season typically starts in mid- to late September, but network executives don't expect original scripted comedies and dramas to show up before November.

Burke said if there is a longer delay, ABC could run programming from other Walt Disney Co. units such as ESPN and the new streaming service Disney+. The network does expect to have the NBA Finals in the fall, which will buy some time until series programming can get back up and running.

Along with "The Rookie," the other returning dramas in the 2020-21 schedule are "Grey's Anatomy," "The Good Doctor," "A Million Little Things," "Station 19" and "Stumptown."

The returning comedies are "The Conners," "The Goldbergs" and "American Housewife." The sitcoms "black-ish" and "mixed-ish" will return in mid-season.

The network is also bringing back unscripted shows "The Bachelorette," "America's Funniest Home Videos," "Dancing With the Stars," "Shark Tank" and "American Idol." The newsmagazine "20/20" will also return.