As NBC’s The Player heads toward its explosive finale, we’re spotlighting the four characters – and actors – that make this show the unsung class of television. Today, the spotlight is on Detective Cal Brown, the best friend of Alex Kane who turned out to be much more than that, thanks to the way he was played by Damon Gupton.
Cal Brown is a dedicated detective with the Las Vegas Police Department, and longtime BFF to Alex (Philip Winchester), who winds up becoming both Alex’s ally and enemy thanks to the secrecy of the game. While Cal genuinely wants the best for his friend, he’s also devoted to doing good and doing it the right way – which drives a wedge between them when Alex, forced to adhere to an unwritten rule, can’t give Cal straight answers about what he’s up to.
Every show has a character who’s the best friend of the hero, and most series barely remember to flesh him or her out beyond that. In programs where the cops aren’t the stars of the show, the police officers are usually written as people who either needlessly get in the way or show up two minutes too late every time. So to create the best friend of the character and make him an LVPD detective could have easily been a double whammy for The Player, but instead Cal turned into the show’s most undervalued asset.
Part of the credit goes to the show’s writers, for how they chose to handle him in the first place. They made a conscious choice to have Cal’s investigation into The House be a real plot point, which meant treating him like a real professional. He doesn’t just show up when it was convenient for the story and he issn’t always one step behind the situation. If there is any issue with how his storyline is written, it’s that in the later episodes he’s begun to take a backseat to FBI agent Rose Nolan (KaDee Strickland), a recurring character with much less depth and appeal.
But the casting of Damon Gupton made a statement all its own. Gupton is not a backseat actor; he’s one of those people you have to watch, no matter how big the size of his part. Having played his fair share of officers over his career – see his recurring role in the first season of Empire and his regular one on another NBC series, Prime Suspect – he already knew the job description and makes that part look easy. Whether he was chasing a lead or getting into a shootout with a serial killer in the LVPD bullpen, he really feels like a cop.
And he is a competent one, too. Cal didn’t just pick up clues every now and then. When he started seriously looking into the game, he knew the questions to ask and he got answers, and then he followed up on what he found. That gives The Player a certain extra dose of credibility, because the authorities Alex wasn’t supposed to involve were actually good at their jobs. Cal is the proof that the show can’t just run around doing whatever it wanted without allowing for repercussions, and that the characters are legitimately in danger of being exposed. Without him, there isn’t nearly as much tension.
Yet Cal’s importance to the story is based on much more than his career choice. In fact, most times his personal relationship with Alex is more meaningful than the professional one. The two have certain key elements in common – a staunch morality and their long-standing support of each other – but their friendship was tested early and has been strained consistently for one of the most interesting portrayals of a relationship under pressure in a long time.
TV shows have to create problems between characters as a matter of course. No one gets along all of the time, and people fighting is one of the easiest sources of drama. Of course Cal was going to have an issue with Alex keeping secrets from him. But whereas other shows have those folks make up after an episode or two, these two haven’t been the same in a while. Cal has been allowed to continue to be frustrated with Alex’s evasiveness, and even when his best friend threw him half an explanation in “The Norseman,” he’s still not completely convinced.
But at the same time, that doesn’t marginalize their friendship. Every time they have a confrontation, The Player has been great at conveying how genuinely upset Alex is that he can’t tell Cal the truth and how much Cal is hurt by the fact that he doesn’t. The single biggest reason Cal is so upset – and so dogged in his investigation – is out of his honest concern for Alex’s safety. He obviously wants to fulfill his responsibilities as a cop, but what’s keeping him up at night is his desire to protect someone he cares deeply about.
That emotional component of the show is what takes Cal and Alex’s characters to the next level. The show doesn’t just have a generic cop chasing Alex; it’s someone that he knows and the audience is invested in. Alex isn’t just out there saving the day and going home; he also has to struggle with how his choices affect his personal life. And we care about the stakes in said personal life because of the remarkable chemistry between Gupton and Philip Winchester, who mesh together as if they’ve really been friends for more than a decade. They have such a natural rapport that it’s hard to believe they first met a few months ago.
But it’s easy to understand how they connected so well. They’re two fundamentally really good people, which is exactly the same thing that can be said about their characters. Cal Brown truly upends the way that cops are portrayed in TV dramas on a number of levels. He’s written with so much more to him than most in his place. But he’s also the emotional heart of The Player, the one person in the main cast who is outside of this complicated game and who serves as the audience’s window into it.
And in playing him, Damon Gupton has imbued him with an amount of dignity and strength that has made him just as important to the show as everyone else. Gupton’s portrayal of Cal lifts the character into being someone that could easily be the hero of his own show, and loses no luster just because he happens to be the supporting player in someone else’s.
As shows like Empire have reopened the discussion about actors of color in starring roles on TV, it’s baffling that Gupton hasn’t gotten more attention for what he’s been able to do, first on WEtv’s The Divide last year and now on The Player. He and Winchester are two of the most criminally underrated actors on television now, if not in the entire history thereof.
Whether or not The Player continues past these initial nine episodes, Damon Gupton’s portrayal of Cal Brown should be looked back upon as the way police detectives should be written on TV: as smart, capable individuals who can be just as multi-faceted as everyone else around them, and whom you’d genuinely want to come to your rescue.
The Player airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.