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New TV series ‘The Red Line,’ set and shot in Chicago, aims for empathy

The fatal police shooting of a Chicago doctor leaves his husband (Noah Wyle, left) and adopted daughter (Aliyah Royale) struggling to connect on "The Red Line," a CBS series debuting April 28.

The fatal police shooting of a Chicago doctor leaves his husband (Noah Wyle, left) and adopted daughter (Aliyah Royale) struggling to connect on "The Red Line," a CBS series debuting April 28. | CBS

A new CBS show rooted in Chicago seems ripped from the city’s headlines, tackling police misconduct, political corruption and criminal justice reform. It’s so timely, script adjustments were made following the Jason Van Dyke trial.

“The Red Line,” an eight-episode series premiering April 28, follows the lives of three families struggling to overcome the complicated and heart-wrenching repercussions of a police shooting of an innocent man.

An African American doctor is shot to death by a white police officer responding to the scene of a convenience store robbery. The unarmed man, Harrison Brennan, wearing a sweatshirt with his hood on, was picking up milk on his way home from the hospital at the request of his husband, played by Noah Wyle (“ER,” “Falling Skies”).

“[Here’s] this issue that couldn’t be more contemporary, which is really ironic given that the source material goes back almost a decade,” said Wyle, who was a frequent Chicago visitor during his 1994-2005 “ER” run as Dr. John Carter. “It was written originally as a play by Caitlin Parrish and [directed by] Erica Weiss.”

Well known in Chicago’s theater world, Parrish and Weiss met at DuPaul University and collaborated on the 2009 play “A Twist of Water,” from which the series is drawn. They are co-executive producers and writers on the show. Among the other executive producers are “A Wrinkle in Time” director Ava DuVernay and Greg Berlanti, the prolific television show-runner and director of “Love, Simon.”

On the October day when Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder for shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, Weiss said, the producers say they realized the verdict “would completely transform the context in which our story took place. … It was cathartic and hopeful, and we immediately dove into every story and script already in motion to make sure that the show was clearly set in a Chicago where a guilty verdict against Jason Van Dyke was possible.”

Added Wyle, “We have a show where we have scripts where we say no officer has been found guilty of murder in 50 years, and suddenly we have to go back and course-correct a little bit with what is changing every day in this city.”

With the goal of fairly presenting all sides of the story, “The Red Line” is told from the perspective of three families intertwined by the shooting: the grieving husband and daughter, the police officers involved and an ambitious, young woman who is running for alderman.

“If you empathize with any one [person], you kind of have to empathize with all,” Wyle said. “And that’s the hope, that this becomes something that bridges people together, as opposed to increases the divide.”

On the Chicago set of CBS’s new show “The Red Line.”  | Brian Rich / Sun-Times

The CTA Red Line is a metaphor for the thread that weaves through and connects the families despite individual motivations and racial and socioeconomic differences. As they converge, each confronts issues of race, innate bias and accountability.

“ ‘The Red Line’ is a love letter to the Windy City, unafraid to examine its deep flaws and complicated history. This is a show created by people who love Chicago, filmed entirely in Chicago, lifting up and featuring Chicago talent both onscreen and off,” Weiss said.

Having Chicago show-runners who are familiar with the theater scene and talent pool has been a game-changer for local actors. The cast includes two accomplished Chicago actors, Elizabeth Laidlaw and Michael Patrick Thornton.

“It’s a dream come true,” Thornton said. “I get out of my house, I make a right, I drive past where I did my first play, where I went to high school, past my mom’s old neighborhood. And it’s a true honor to be able to shoot this at home.”

Noel Fisher and Elizabeth Laidlaw, police partners on “The Red Line,” on the show’s Chicago set. | Brian Rich / Sun-Times

Said Weiss: “We also wanted the makeup of the people making the show to reflect the real diversity in the city of Chicago and the story we were telling. Putting a premium on inclusivity requires extra legwork to make sure you’re looking for people to join your team who may not be the first expected names on all lists but are no less brilliant or capable or ideal for their jobs.”

“It’s a true opportunity to speak to what is happening right now, to have your art reflect that and in such a truthful way,” said Emayatzy Corinealdi, who plays the aldermanic candidate. “The show is kind of giving you that opportunity to peak into [the other side’s] mindset and then from there maybe we can solve some problems, maybe justice can come, maybe some change can come from that.”

Said Thornton, “What I hope is that people come away with a strong sense that, while we may live in one of the most segregated cities in the country, that there’s so much more that we have in common than divides us. And we better start seeing each other, our neighbors, as ourselves.”

‘THE RED LINE’ CAST

Daniel Calder (Noah Wyle)

Noah Wyle as Daniel Calder. | CBS

Daniel Calder is a white, public school history teacher married to an African American doctor, Harrison Brennan, who is mistakenly shot by a white police officer responding to a convenience store robbery. The gay couple have an adopted African American teenage daughter named Jira. 

“Working on a project that is such a sensitive subject matter to so many people, and understanding the responsibility inherent in trying to tell this story but also being mindful of how difficult it is to talk about this … I’m trying to be as accurate and honest and sensitive as possible,” Wyle said.

Jira Calder-Brennan (Aliyah Royale) 

Aliyah Royale as Jira Calder-Brennan. | CBS

Jira Calder-Brennan is the adopted 17-year-old daughter of Calder and Brennan. She’s struggling to come to terms with losing her preferred father and struggling to connect with her white father, who can’t relate to her emotional needs as a young, African American woman. Her need for support and guidance leads her to search for her biological mother. 

“Jira didn’t understand the racial tensions between white and black, and to have this experience happen to her and be opened up to a whole world where race matters in a family where she was adopted by biracial parents, it changes things for her,” Royale said. “She’s a go-getter and a fighter. On the other side, she doesn’t do well when things don’t go her way.

Tia Young (Emayatzy Corinealdi)

Emayatzy Corinealdi as Tia Young. | CBS

Tia Young is running for Sixth Ward alderman. She faces political obstacles and others on the homefront. It’s revealed early on that she is Jira’s biological mother. 

“She’s a woman who’s trying to make a change. She sees an issue and she stands up and says, ‘I think I can contribute my voice,’ ”  Corinealdi said.

Ethan Young (Howard Charles)

Howard Charles as Ethan Young. | CBS

Ethan Young is a hardworking, devoted husband to Tia and father to their 6-year-old son. A CTA train operator on the Red Line, he’s supportive of his wife’s political ambitions but cautions her against reuniting with the daughter she put for adoption as a teenager. 

“Ethan went to school with Tia. It’s the ultimate romance in that sense,” Charles said. 

Paul Evans (Noel Fisher)

Noel Fisher as Paul Evans. | CBS

Paul Evans is the cop who must live with the repercussions of shooting an innocent man. He discovers that surveillance video of that fateful night exists and has to make a decision on how to react.

Jim Evans (Michael Patrick Thornton)

Michael Patrick Thornton as Jim Evans. | CBS

Jim Evans is a former cop who was shot in the line of duty, which left him a wheelchair user, bitter and prone to violence. He’s the brother of Officer Paul Evans and believes anything Paul did on or off the job is justified. 

“The real story for my character is how do you heal from something that’s cataclysmic,” Thornton said. 

“I think it’s great that America is going to see a character with a disability played by an actor with a disability. TV and film for better or worse is the great validator. And when a kid who sees someone who moves the way they do, or looks the way they do, or loves the way they do on that screen they [feel], ‘OK, I matter in some way.’ ”

Victoria “Vic” Renna (Elizabeth Laidlaw)

Elizabeth Laidlaw as Victoria “Vic” Renna. | CBS

Vic Renna is a tough, smart and loyal cop struggling with the stresses of being a single parent. She’s the on-duty partner of Paul Evans the night of the shooting and reacts to protect him. 

“She loves her job, which she takes very seriously. She’s grown up around cops and cop families. The closest people in the world to her are police officers,” Laidlaw said.

Liam Bhatt (Vinny Chhibber)

Vinny Chhibber as Liam Bhatt. | CBS

Jira’s teacher and Daniel’s colleague at the public high school, Liam Bhatt tries to be a supportive friend. Sarcastic, with a dry sense of humor, he tries to bridge the gap between father and daughter.

“What I’ve enjoyed about this character is his intersectionality of race, gender, ideology, religion,” Chhibber said. “They’ve put us into this story without judging and allowing the characters be informed by, but not defined by, these sort of checked boxes.”