For several years, British stars Noel Clarke and Ashley Walters have talked about producing a British version of “Bad Boys,” the Will Smith and Martin Lawrence buddy action movie franchise which includes two films with a third on the way. It’s a conversation that began in the early 2010s, and one ongoing key question was: Would their take would be a film or a TV series?
And after being told repeatedly by executives that they couldn’t sell a show with two black leads, that question was finally answered when British broadcaster Sky One picked up what would become the groundbreaking series “Bulletproof” in early 2018, premiering the six-episode action-drama in May of last year.
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An instant hit, the first episode drew a cumulative average audience of 1.59 million viewers, making it the largest Sky One audience of year at the time, according to the network, and it was subsequently renewed for a six-episode second season.
The series was picked up by The CW for Stateside distribution, and is set for a late summer run, beginning on August 7.
“It’s groundbreaking because we haven’t really had a show in Britain with two black male leads who are positively represented,” said Clarke. “The bigger shows here that feature black men are always in stereotypical roles, like drug dealers, gang members, or just generally engaged in criminal activity. In our show, they are black male role models, one of whom is married and actually has a black wife, who is a lawyer, which is just not something you see in this country, even in 2019.”
For Clarke, it’s an opportunity to “normalize” the black British family on the small screen, a self-imposed responsibility he doesn’t take lightly. And, based on the show’s ratings, the effort has been much appreciated by British audiences.
“A lot of people would stop us on the street to tell us how proud they were that their lives were represented on TV,” Clarke said.
And he hopes American audiences will be just as enthusiastic about the series – especially African-Americans, given how rare it is, even in the U.S., to see a buddy action movie or TV series with two black leads. From “48 Hours” to “Lethal Weapon,” “Miami Vice,” “Rush Hour,” the “Men in Black” movies, and more, black leads are almost always paired with white co-stars. And there are far more movies and TV shows in the genre with two white leads than there are with two black leads.
“We’d love the African-American audience to really get behind the show, and see that it has positive depictions of black life on screen, with really well-rounded, complex characters,” said Clarke. He also hopes that black American audiences feel some pride in knowing that the creative team behind the series is comprised of two black men.
Not only did Clarke and Walters create the series, they are involved in every aspect of its production, from writing (both have written a few episodes), to hiring directors, casting supporting characters, on-set management, and in the editing room. “We’re on all the emails about everything related to the show, and we even watch every take, making sure we’re giving every actor a fair shot,” Clarke said. “So yes, we’re very heavily involved, because it’s something we take very seriously, and we want to make sure it’s done right.”
“Bulletproof” is both high-octane action and family drama. The series follows partners Bishop (Clarke) and Pike (Walters) as they chase down hardened criminals in London’s East End. On the surface, both have a lot in common. They are cool, smart, streetwise and tough. They share a deep, fraternal relationship and are always there for each other.
But their personal motivations and emotional lives outside the police force differ. Pike is an aspirational family man, determined to follow in his father’s footsteps – but not in his shadow. Bishop, on the other hand, never knew his father, grew up in foster care and on the streets. Their bond seems unbreakable, but their friendship is tested as ghosts from the past are reincarnated and conspiracies are exposed.
Both are well-drawn characters brought to life by Clarke and Walters, who showcase a wonderful chemistry on screen. “We have a great relationship in real life, and so there’s a lot of humor and banter off-camera which we are able to bring to our characters, and elevate the scripts,” Clarke said. While there’s a basic shape and structure to every scene, both he and Walters often ad libbed their dialogue. “We really try to bring a bit more realness to the story and the characters, so that they feel more authentic. These are just two guys who’ve seen a lot, and we bring our own experiences into it.”
Continuing its push for more year-round programming, The CW picked up “Bulletproof” and added the series to its summer 2019 schedule. It’s one of 11 original series launching on the network throughout the summer – more than ever before.
“There were a few U.S. networks bidding on it, but The CW wanted it the most,” Clarke said. “They just really liked it, I think partly because it is a rare kind of project, and hopefully it does well, so that they’ll pick up season two.”
As for what he’d like American audiences to take from the series, Clarke said: “I think we’ve done something special here. It might not be as big budget as some of the American shows, but it’s about two guys who represent everyday people. Regardless of skin color, these are two blue collar, regular guys who go to work every day to do a job, and have families, dealing with the typical ups and downs of life. We represent average people, and I think that’s something that we’d like to get across.”
Action-packed, gritty and funny, with riveting cases in each episode which feed into a larger, season-long mystery, “Bulletproof” premieres Wednesday, August 7, at 8 p.m. on The CW.