“I’m proud of you.”
When Lucy Chen said those four little words to her Training Officer, Tim Bradford, on the latest episode of The Rookie, it felt like something big—for these characters, for their relationship, and for this show as a whole. And it’s not just because Tim Bradford seems like the kind of guy who is more familiar with a dad who would “tune him up on the regular” than someone telling him they’re proud of him.
Big things are happening on The Rookie this season, and it’s time we talked about them.
The Rookie is a police procedural, and it’s a police procedural filmed with a lot of help from the LAPD. It’s often claimed that it’s different from other police procedurals because it’s committed to accurately and honestly depicting what life is really like for patrol officers. But for its first two seasons, those claims of accuracy and honesty never felt fully realized because the show never dared to take a long, hard look at police brutality and violence, racial profiling, abuses of power, the ways police departments close ranks, and the other ugly truths about the relationships between law enforcement and communities of color, especially Black communities.
This summer, though, it became clear that things needed to change. Between social media and traditional media outlets putting the focus on the problems inherent in “copaganda” movies and TV shows and reservations brought to the creator by at least one of its stars (Titus Makin Jr., who plays rookie officer Jackson West), The Rookie was at a crossroads: It could continue to press on as it had been—ignoring the harsh realities in favor of entertainment—or it could try to be more, to be better.
The powers that be chose the latter, and the show is much better for it.
With a partnership with advocacy group Color of Change and a writers room featuring more diverse voices (in addition to a cast that features all but two main characters played by people of color), The Rookie approached its third season with a clear focus and a new mission: to reflect real systemic problems and to show them in detail rather than in one “special episode.”
Most of the attention surrounding that focus and mission has been given to a storyline involving Makin’s Officer West and his new Training Officer, Doug Stanton. Stanton, with his racial profiling, excessive use of force, threats, and racist beliefs and actions, is an example of the kinds of police officers responsible for the deaths of George Floyd and so many others, as well as the over-policing of Black communities and other systemic issues in the criminal justice system.
But it would be easy to just write this new character off as a “bad guy” who gets taken down by all of our favorite police officers, the ones who’ve always been guided by strong moral compasses.
And taking the easy way out is not the m.o. for this show this season. Instead, it’s committed to showing how men like Doug Stanton can get into positions of power and stay there, even when so many people around them know exactly who they are—and how dangerous that can be.
Enter Tim Bradford.
For as much as Doug’s story is the obvious lens through which we see the problems and privilege inherent in the system, Tim’s story this season has presented an even more nuanced look at all of these issues. We know Tim is a good man. We know that he has a strong moral code that he lives by. We know he’s not a racist.
But we also know that he’s stayed silent while men like Doug have continued to rise through the ranks. We know that he’s brushed off Jackson’s genuine concern about Doug. We know that he’s questioned what can really be done about situations like the one Jackson has found himself in.
Tim—and even Sergeant Grey (a Black man serving as Watch Commander)—are part of the problem. But The Rookie has shown us that they can also be part of the solution. And it all starts by listening and learning. It starts by listening to Jackson’s concerns and learning when he says that silence is complicity. It starts by listening when Doug shows who he really is and learning that some things are bigger than having each other’s backs.
And it starts by listening when your own abuses of power are brought to light and learning to be better.
Enter Lucy Chen.
Lucy has never been afraid to challenge Tim, to question him, and to call him out when he needs it. It’s what makes her such a good match for him and what fuels what’s almost universally considered the show’s strongest partnership. And in this episode, we see Lucy confront Tim about a moment from their past that’s stuck with her—and not in a good way.
In the show’s pilot episode, Tim tests Lucy by asking her to translate something offensive for a group of Latino gardeners. And when Lucy brings it up in this episode, asking Tim to think about how he was terrorizing those people just to test her, she’s doing more than just making Tim confront an uncomfortable part of his past in order to grow.
She’s making the show confront an uncomfortable part of its past in order to do the same.
That moment in the pilot was focused more on how much of a jerk Tim was being to Lucy rather than the implications of him abusing his power toward a marginalized group of people. It was an uncomfortable moment, but it was never brought up again. We were supposed to forget it and focus on Tim as a complex, conflicted grouch with a heart of gold.
By bringing up that moment now and highlighting how wrong it was, it seems like the show is acknowledging that its framing and story choices and even small character beats have often been far from perfect and have often brushed difficult topics under the rug.
But there’s a way to be better. And it starts with acknowledging past failings.
As Tim tells Lucy later, “I can’t undo it, but I can make sure I never do it again.”
That moment—with Tim admitting to Lucy that he’s not mad at her for bringing up what he did; he’s mad at himself for doing it in the first place—is a major moment of growth for a character who continues to do the hard work of becoming a better person and a better police officer with almost every episode. Tim is a realist; he knows he can’t change the past. But he also knows that he can make changes to do the right thing in the present and in the future—and it starts by continuing to listen and learn. Luckily, Tim is open to learning as much from Lucy (and now, it seems, from Jackson too) as she’s learning from him.
The honesty of their conversation, the merciful way the show let Tim act upset for about 5 minutes before revealing his frustration was with himself (rather than dragging out the drama), and the genuine remorse on his part and pride on hers all prove that for as much as Doug’s storyline is the more dramatic one this season so far, Tim’s storyline is my favorite story on TV right now. It’s a story of a good man who’s learning that he’s part of a problematic system and whose privilege and silence have far-reaching effects.
And it’s a story of a good man who’s doing what he can to face that truth—and to be better.
In many ways, Tim’s story is the story of the show itself—a journey of confronting your part in a racist system rife with abuses of power and learning from it instead of pretending there’s nothing you can do about it.
It’s a journey to be proud of.
What was the best thing you saw on TV this week?