Detective Walter Clark Jr. (Theo James), the ambitious but inexperienced lawman at the center of Golden Boy, is so hellbent on immediately solving every fresh homicide case that finds its way into his precinct that he habitually bypasses common sense, so much so that the series may as well have been called Green Boy. Told almost entirely through jumpy flashbacks accompanied by narration from Clark, recently named New York City’s Police Commissioner (the youngest one on record, no less), Nicholas Wootton’s uniformly by-the-book series quickly eradicates itself of any authentic tension by unwisely depicting its hero alive and well (despite a slight limp that has yet to be thoroughly explained) seven years in the future. Thus, no matter how turbulent the systematically mapped-out murder-of-the-week situations become, it’s abundantly clear that the newly glorified Clark will make it out in one piece by each episode’s predictable conclusion.
To its credit, Golden Boy progresses at a nimble pace, illustrating how Clark makes the move from street patrol to homicide detective, along the way meeting his match in Detective Christian Arroyo (Kevin Alejandro), whose questionable methodology when it comes to closing cases (manhandling confidential informants, tampering with evidence) leaves the still-budding Clark with a deeper understanding of what it takes to earn any sort of praise in his new hard-knock line of work. From the get-go, Clark demonstrates all the restraint of a ravenous puppy snapping at the heels of his master holding a scrumptious treat. Clark’s partner, Detective Don Owen (Chi McBride), the kind of worldly veteran who’s never gotten the respect he’s deserved from the big brass, sees a trace of his former self in the eager Clark, and attempts to reel him in when he can with sagely advice. However, Clark has difficulty being even moderately restrained, his overzealous behavior revealed to be motivated by a damaged past: His folks apparently weren’t around much, leaving the workaholic Clark to look after his troubled younger sister, Agnes (Stella Maeve).
Early on, Clark relays that he nearly led a life of delinquency, coming close to joining a local gang in his pubescence. It’s this streetwise mentality that puts him at odds with not only Owen, the sole person who has his back, but the remainder of the protocol-honoring homicide department as well—a mixed bag of 5-0 stereotypes that add minimal spice to the generally colorless scenes of office banter, namely Arroyo’s uptight right-hand woman, Detective Deborah McKenzie (Bonnie Somerville), and Holt McCallany’s wisecracking Detective Joe Diaco, who always seems to be in the midst of some goofy side business (vending Broadway tickets, manufacturing NYPD slogan-branded t-shirts).
If Golden Boy has a saving grace, it’s the moments when Owen sheds his mannered, old-dog exterior and justifiably barks at Clark in the wake of his hotheaded antics. McBride’s performance is the show’s emotional anchor, as when Owen periodically slaps some sense into the fledgling detective, whose impulsive nature is his most detrimental trait. Through Owen’s sharp-edged yet sensible lessons, glimmers of the man who’ll become police commissioner begin to shine through Clark’s gritty demeanor. Pity that Golden Boy wallows in the muck of its standard operating procedure for far too long for any of this to make much of a lasting difference.