The CBS drama felt well poised to react to the unrest since cop-community relations were already in its DNA.

By Lynette Rice
November 11, 2020 at 10:00 AM EST
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The writers of S.W.A.T. had already written several episodes for the fourth season when the May killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin ignited a social and political movement. Star Shemar Moore (Hondo Harrelson) immediately picked up the phone and called Executive Producer Shawn Ryan: How would the CBS cop drama address the Black Lives Matter movement in the new season?

Several meetings — including a particularly long one in Moore's backyard — would follow between the actor and writers. Fortunately, Ryan and his S.W.A.T. co-creator Aaron Thomas never felt like they had to completely change the way they depict officers in light of the social unrest: the drama, which launched in 2017, was written to address the often tenuous relationship between the police and the African American community. Here, Moore, Thomas, and Ryan talk about those planning meetings and how they think the BLM movement will — and won't — impact cop shows in the future.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When the unrest began, did you think it would have an immediate impact on the way cops were depicted on TV, and on S.W.A.T. specifically?
AARON THOMAS: It was always a no-brainer for us to have a response to it, mainly because we had the advantage of our show being about community relations and ways to improve it. We actually looked at it as an advantage. It allowed us to delve even deeper into a lot of the things that we had been exploring in the first three seasons. We felt a responsibility to not only entertain, but also to be a part of the conversation in a positive way. There is an element of influence that we hold. The question is, what are you going to do with that responsibility?

SHAWN RYAN: I knew that it would cause a re-examination of police shows and how law enforcement is portrayed, but I felt pretty good about our representation behind the camera, our representation in front of the camera, and the stories we've been telling. We had been addressing these issues for the previous three seasons. This show began because Aaron really wanted to tell a story in the aftermath of the Ferguson, Mo., police killing, and the violence that emanated afterward. Aaron was really interested in telling a story about a Black man who had one foot in his African American community and another foot in the police community and trying to find ways to bridge the gap. We also knew that we had a headstart over a lot of police shows in that we were already dealing with the intersection of police and race. We did an episode in season 2 where Hondo is traveling to Arizona and he's pulled over by a cop. There's a lot of frustration over how he's treated one way when he's in police uniform and treated another way when he's just a Black man on the streets of the United States.

SHEMAR MOORE: It's fun to be on an exciting, kick-ass cop show. I'm the lead actor and I'm proud to have achieved that. But I'm also a producer on the show. It's very important to me that we come up with quality content that has integrity without getting too heavy-handed or preachy. I felt that there was an opportunity and a large responsibility to stay, as they say, woke.

So are we about to see more woke cops on TV?
AT: I don't know that we've ever seen what a woke cop looks like. Growing up as an African American kid, I don't know that I could name any woke cop that ever saw. I saw plenty of Andy Sipowiczs and Spenser for hires and Kojaks. Even Gil Grissom on CSI.

I don't know that I've ever seen a cop that was necessarily aware of some of the elements that we're now starting to deal with in the TV realm. So we are entering a new phase where even the idea of a cop being near woke might be a whole new element. 

SR: I'm not saying that we're suddenly presenting a "woke cop" on our show. People want to be entertained, but they also want to be challenged intellectually to help process what's going on in the world around them. Just because we're touching on the subject, it doesn't mean that we're proselytizing or that we're politicizing. I enjoy putting different characters in situations and they have to figure their way out of them and think about the world around them. I think if anyone tries to radically change their show and "woke it up," I'm not sure that's going to be successful or be what people necessarily want to watch. 

AT: No one wants to be preached to. We're always asking ourselves, how can we present a meal that is delicious to eat but also has nutrition in it? We want it to be entertaining. That's the goal. 

What can we expect from tonight's premiere? Does it address the unrest from this summer?
SR: Our season 3 finale was scheduled to air on the anniversary of the Rodney King riots. We got the idea of doing a flashback episode to when Hondo was 17 years old. He's now the guardian of the 17-year-old kid Darryl (Deshae Frost) who's the son of a childhood friend of Hondo, who is in prison. The script was done in January of this year and we were prepared to do it but then Covid prevented us from filming our last episode. So we thought we'd film this word for word for season 4. Then the social unrest hit this summer and caused us to reevaluate everything. We did keep major elements but added a modern-day element of what was going on in this country. It made it better. The episode is titled "Three 17-Year-Olds" and it touches on Hondo's father (Obba Babatundé) and his experience with the police when he was 17 years old and Hondo's experience as a 17-year-old during the L.A. riots in '92. And then, what Darryl is going through with the rest of us this past summer. 

SM: We find a nice balance so you don't feel like you are watching the news. A TV show can't fix the injustices around the world, but at least we can make you think. Our show does a good job of showing the human side of our characters, my character being from South L.A., being a Black man from the streets, and having the constant struggle to not forget where he's come from but to also change the system ... change the way the police deal with civilians and change the perception of civilians to the police.

Can you see an opportunity to tell stories this season about the vigilante groups that emerged over the summer?
AT: Most definitely. We're so proud of a lot of the material that we're tackling, certainly when it comes to vigilantism, groups that want to take the law into their own hands. Season 4 deals with a lot of that and puts our officers in the midst of it as they do their jobs. It's our most ambitious season yet.

So have we seen the end of the antihero?
SR: I think the Tony Sopranos, the Vic Mackeys, the Walter Whites were already on their way out. Once you have Dexter, who's literally a serial killer, it's hard to push beyond those boundaries.

I don't know that we're done seeing them. These things go back and forth. One of the reasons why I wrote The Shield in the first place was I felt that too many of the cop shows were making cops into heroes. If TV moves in one direction, somebody will find a current and creative way to tell a story that completely goes opposite of that. So I don't know if the antiheroes are necessarily going away.

The fourth season of S.W.A.T. debuts tonight at 9 p.m. ET on CBS.

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