The American legal system is an enormous, ancient beast filled with so many contradictions, vestigial traditions, and internal biases that sometimes only an outsider can really make sense of it.
At least that’s what AMC is hoping with the arrival of 61st Street, the latest TV legal drama from British lawyer-turned screenwriter Peter Moffat. Moffat is well-known to U.K. audiences through modern law and order sagas like North Square, Criminal Justice, and Silk. In 2020, Moffat took his first crack at unwinding the American judicial system with the Showtime series Your Honor, which starred Bryan Cranston as a New Orleans judge faced with an impossible decision. Now, Moffat is tackling American justice from a different perspective – namely the mostly Black working class folks it tends to crush in its burdensome cogs.
61st Street follows the story of Moses Johnson (Tosin Cole), a scholarship track runner from the South Side of Chicago who gets wrapped up in a drug bust gone bad through sheer bad luck, threatening his bright future. Running ends up as something of a theme for 61st Street as so often America’s introduction to young Black men in the news is when they’re trying to outrun a system seeking to ensnare them. For the American-born British actor Cole, who most audiences know as Ryan Sinclair in Doctor Who, the literal act of running came along with some occupational hazards.
“I popped my hamstring,” Cole says. “It was like a week in. I was running underneath the train tracks. I thought I was Tom Cruise. I thought ‘beat the camera. Be faster.’ And that was it.”
Once in the thrall of the Chicago legal machine, Moses Johnson’s only allies are his mother Martha (Andrene Ward-Hammond), his brother Joshua (Bentley Green), and his lawyer Franklin Roberts, played by Courtney B. Vance, who must be halfway to getting his own law license by now having previously taken on the legal profession in Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Revenge, and The People v. O.J. Simpson.
“It was cool working with Courtney,” Cole says. “Being a fan of his and getting a chance to work with the GOAT is always like a dream come true. He’s such a giving actor. Carries himself with such grace. Does everything at his own time and pace and it always comes through.”
“He reminds me of an uncle,” Ward-Hammond adds. “If you feel uneasy about the space, he’ll take his time and make sure it’s all good.”
Though the subject matter of 61st Street is quite bleak, the actors who make up the onscreen Johnson family kept things as light as they could.
“I have a laugh. I try to. I’m the most unprofessional one here. I would probably be sleeping during takes and stuff like that,” Cole says.
Though portraying Office Johnny Logan, a character on the opposite end of the legal spectrum from the Johnsons, Mark O’Brien (Halt and Catch Fire) appreciated the congenial vibes.
“You have to enjoy the work. We’re all lucky to be there no matter the subject matter. It’s dark but we’re doing a job and can jump into it. I thought our cast was great for that.”
61st Street’s secret weapon is undoubtedly its ability to film on location of Chicago’s South Side, a fertile ground for social commentary and drama that is a relative rarity on television.
“We were actually shooting on the South Side. Most shows set in Chicago aren’t shot in the actual city,” Ward-Hammond says.
“Seeing people from Chicago being so into what we were doing and showing love and appreciation for us. It brought a real sense of pride,” Green adds.
61st Street is in the rare position of having a second season greenlit before the first even premieres. That gives the show’s actors some room to spread out and really delve into their characters and stories. That also gives audiences time to process what the show has to say.
“Even though it’s a fictional story, we’re still reflecting present times and what’s going on,” Cole says. “These are still issues that are happening today. We’re just trying to reflect the times and provoke thought and emotions.”
The first episode of 61st Street will premiere on AMC and AMC+ at 10 p.m. ET on Sunday, April 10. New episodes of the series will premiere one week early on streaming services AMC+ and ALLBLK with episode 2 arriving on April 10.