In Judge Victor Valdivia's life, dramatic tension is rarely interrupted by light subplots.
Old neighborhood. New dreams.
When Lincoln Heights debuted on ABC Family in 2007, it was an interesting and even bold experiment. Much darker and grittier in its conception than many other shows on the lighthearted cable channel, this was a show that addressed sometimes shocking problems in a realistic way. At least, that was the intent, but unfortunately, judging by the first season, the series was hamstrung by a need to balance the darker plot elements with the kind of middlebrow obviousness of a so-called "family" show. You may admire Lincoln Heights' noble aims, but that doesn't mean you'll be impressed with the show itself.
Facts of the Case
Police officer Eddie Sutton (Russell Hornsby, Playmakers) has decided to return to his old inner-city neighborhood, but now he's got a wife, Jenn (Nikki Micheaux, The Shield), and three kids, teenage daughter Cassie (Erica Hubbard, A Cinderella Story), preteen daughter Lizzie (Rhyon Nicole Brown, Judging Amy), and young son Taylor (Mishon Ratliff). When he takes over an old crackhouse and renovates it into his dream home, he realizes the problems of attempting to return to his roots, but he and his family vow to make the best of the situation. Here are the thirteen episodes presented on four discs:
Lincoln Heights is an uncomfortable amalgam of two different shows that sit uneasily together. In some parts, it tries to emulate the gritty realism of films like Menace II Society and Boyz N the Hood, but because it aired on ABC Family, it ends up as sanitized and predictable more often than it should be. There are some genuine moments of well-written drama here, but they're not enough to save the series altogether.
It's not that Lincoln Heights doesn't try to push the envelope creatively. There are storylines involving gang shootings, teen pregnancy, stalkers, interracial dating, child abuse, and discrimination within the black community. These are generally addressed thoughtfully and with surprisingly realistic outcomes. For instance, the pilot episode introduces a character named Donelle, an intellectual gangbanger who initially seems like he'll serve in that most tired of roles, the Greek chorus. Yet the producers, in a commendable display of artistic courage, kill him off in the pilot and use the aftereffects of his death to launch several important storylines throughout the season. Similarly, "Baby Doe" takes a plot that could have been seen on countless episodes of Law & Order—a baby found in a garbage can—and uses it to define the personalities of the main characters. Some storylines even end unhappily, and some of the ones that don't acknowledge that relationships, even the best ones, require constant work and compromise.
The problem is that these moments are forced to coexist with storylines and lines of dialogue that would have embarrassed the weakest ABC Afterschool Special episodes. Even as the show struggles to examine complex issues in a thoughtful manner, it also throws in some corny treacle that adds little but filler. There are lessons for the kids about how Shoplifting Is Wrong, It's Important To Be Yourself, Don't Change Because Of Peer Pressure, and Always Listen To Your Parents. These are not handled subtly or cleverly; instead, they're shoehorned in as clumsy and blatant a manner as you can imagine. Even "Abduction," the episode where a pair of gangbangers out for revenge kidnap Lizzie and threaten her life, has some well-paced moments of tension but is undercut by a not-so-subtle undercurrent of preachiness; essentially, the message boils down to that hoariest of clichés, Don't Sweat The Small Stuff. How is it possible that the same series that provides some of the most interesting moments in TV drama can also fall so painfully short with these segments? Maybe if Lincoln Heights aired on FX or HBO, it wouldn't have to stoop to such heavy-handedness but this is clearly the kind of thing that the show has to do to be allowed to air on ABC Family.
The episode "Spree" serves as a perfect example of the strengths and weaknesses of Lincoln Heights. The main storyline, involving an old high school classmate of Eddie's who attempts to rob a bank, is handled with real conviction and the tension and violence both escalate with realistically horrific results. The effect that this crisis has on both Eddie and Jenn, a nurse who is forced to tend to the gunman's victims, makes an appropriate complement. Unfortunately, the episode also includes another subplot where Tyler is preparing for a clarinet recital and suffers from self-doubt because the neighborhood kids tease him about his choice of musical instrument. This is a tedious storyline that undermines the main story significantly; every time the tension of the bank situation gets ratcheted up, the episode cuts away to this not-very-fascinating subplot. It feels like the show's creators wanted to do something gripping but were forced by ABC Family to insert this story so that young viewers would have something to relate to. The result, like too much of Lincoln Heights, is a hodgepodge that ends up pleasing no one.
Technically, the set is not bad. Shout! Factory's issue has a superb anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer. Though the show has a deliberately limited palette (amber is the predominant color), it looks sharp and vivid. The Dolby Digital stereo mix is also nicely mixed, striking a good balance between ambient sound effects and dialogue. A 5.1 sound mix might have been nice, but this is still pretty good. Sorry to say, there are no extras, although the package does come with an eight-page booklet that includes an essay by creator/executive producer Kathleen McGhee-Anderson.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As he proved on the sadly underrated and canceled Playmakers, Hornsby is an excellent lead for a dramatic series. The decision to make Eddie a cop, not a profession looked upon with much affection in this neighborhood, was a provocative one, and it gives Hornsby the chance to shine with some of this season's best storylines. The rest of the cast, including the child actors, is also quite solid, although Hubbard takes some time to get a good grasp on her character. Nonetheless, even if the writing does let them down sometimes, the actors still do the best with what they're given.
Lincoln Heights has the chance to be a truly original and arresting series that deals with issues rarely seen on TV and on occasion, the show does hit its mark. Unfortunately, too often it settles for hokey family-friendly pablum that fits poorly with the darker moments. Those moments, which are as well-conceived and executed as any on TV, mean that Lincoln Heights is at least worth a look for viewers interested in an absorbing drama. Unfortunately, there are not enough of them to recommend this show wholeheartedly.
Guilty of being too uneven.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
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