The actor and producer opens up to ET about tackling social unrest and policing in a truthful and honest way.
CBS' S.W.A.T. was one of the first scripted series to resume filming in early August during the pandemic. Three months deep into production on season 4, the police drama has completed eight episodes and has been firing on all cylinders -- with new safety protocols and guidelines in place, of course. Following calls for racial justice and protests against police brutality over the summer, portrayals of cops on television were put under scrutiny. Addressing these concerns in a raw and truthful way became of paramount importance for the S.W.A.T. team this year.
"It's taking some discipline but we're on episode eight, going on almost three months and have no positive cases, and we're still bringing in that thrill ride," Shemar Moore told ET's Rachel Smith. "But to be honest, what I'm really really proud of is that the fans have been flocking to us and gave us three seasons, but this fourth season, you’re in for something special and poignant because as a Black man wearing an LAPD cop uniform when things went down with COVID but especially when things went down with George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and so many others."
Before the season, Moore -- who is also a producer on the series -- put together a meeting of the minds to have an open and honest discussion about how S.W.A.T. could dig deeper into its exploration of racial injustice. (On June 1, co-creator Aaron Rahsaan Thomas and the S.W.A.T. writers' room promised to "do better" in its portrayal of race and police.)
"I called [co-creator] Shawn Ryan and Jeff Frost from Sony [TV], we had a sit-down here in my home and I said, 'Look, I know we're an entertainment show, but I don't want to call it a gift, I want to call it an opportunity and responsibility to be woke. Let's not just go out there and chase bad guys, let's go out there with something to say,'" Moore said. "You'll see with our first episode and many more to follow, we're talking about some real issues. We're talking about racial injustice, we're talking about the perception of police -- the good and the bad -- and I think we're going to see some powerful messages from us this year."
Wednesday's two-hour premiere opens with the first episode, titled "3 Seventeen-Year-Olds," which sees three generations of Black men -- Hondo (Moore), his father Daniel Sr. (Obba Babtundé) and teenage charge Darryl (Deshae Frost) -- confronting decades of racial tension in Los Angeles between police and the Black community. Originally slated to close out season 3, the delayed episode includes archival footage from the L.A. riots in 1992 following the Rodney King verdict.
"I met a lot of young people, the under-30 crowd, and a lot of them don't even know who Rodney King is, they don't even know he existed. They hear Watts riots but they don't know what that means," Moore said. "My character, Hondo, was aware of the '92 riots and decided to go into the Marine Corps. and decided to become a police officer because he wanted to change. In the pilot episode, if you want things to change you got to go out there and be the change. His father didn’t think that that would mean he would become a police officer so there's this relationship struggle between Hondo and his father. Is he selling out his Blackness? Is he selling out his community by being a police officer because some in the community see that as the enemy?"
"If we have three characters [of] different generations who are able to tell those stories and connect what happened 28 years ago and what happened now through Hondo's father's character, [whose] argument is 'ain’t s**t changed,' so Hondo is now 'You got to be patient, you got to be faithful, you got to be optimistic. It's baby steps that things can change but we can’t give up hope. If we give up hope then we [are] giving up on each other,'" he added. "So it’s a really interesting and heavy dynamic but we do it in a very graceful way. We're not a show that's going to be political. We're not a show that's religious, but we are a show that's going to be woke. When you watch S.W.A.T. we promise you it's a thrill ride, chasing bad guys, doing cool stuff, doing car chases, motorcycle chases, hanging off the helicopters -- that's what we are. A television show can't fix the holes of the world or the street and the racial injustice, but we can create a conversation."
Moore said later, "It is kind of sad and a humble reality. In some ways a lot of things have not changed but then things have changed. A lot of things need to be addressed and I think our show -- again, it can’t fix it -- but we can shed light on all the different sides of the conversation. We just hope to evoke thoughtful consideration and more conversation because there is such pressure to take a side and we just hope you can appreciate all sides and make a decision from there."
In the premiere episode, Hondo joins a powerful protest for racial equality. Moore shared a poignant story from set filming the scene.
"In that march there's a character who's reciting George Floyd's actual words as he was passing away... Once we got it all set up and my character gets out of the car and gets into the march, all of sudden you hear this woman on a megaphone reciting the words and that actress, a few takes in, stopped midway through shooting, stopped her dialogue. People thought initially that she just forgot her lines," he recalled. "It wasn't that she forgot her lines. It was so important to her to have this opportunity to play this character and recite those lines, but the lines became very real for her because they were George Floyd's words. And there I was playing Hondo, 'acting,' trying to hit my marks but then I saw her reaction and it took a few takes. All of sudden you start to hear the words, and then you start to realize, 'No, no, this really happened.'"
"Then it became more than a television show. We knew what we were doing in this episode, especially on that day, was way bigger than all of us, way bigger than a TV show. Way bigger and it changed my demeanor in the scene," Moore said. "I was being Hondo but there was a lot of Shemar Moore just impacted, saddened, but trying to find the strength in it and knowing that this message when people receive it is going to be so powerful. I showed it to some friends at my home and some of the cast had a get together last week. When the show was over and that final scene [aired], it was so quiet. But it was a beautiful quiet because you knew it wasn't about color. It was about humanity and that ending in that show impacted people so tough and hopefully, no matter what color you are or who you are, if you can be impacted like that it forces you to feel. Hopefully it forces you to think. And if it forces you to think, hopefully it encourages you to talk about it and talk about it to each other."
Moore proclaims season 4 will be the series' "strongest" thus far, as Hondo and company navigate a world battling coronavirus, policing and race.
"I'm really proud of [the premiere] episode and there's going to be other episodes [exploring themes of racial injustice]. It's not just a one-off through the season," Moore promised. "COVID is real and we'll show you it's real in S.W.A.T. in the early episodes and depending on what happens in real life. We're going to keep COVID alive while it's alive... but Hondo's struggle bridging the gap between Black and blue, and police and civilians, and even his own internal struggle [will be ongoing]."
"Did he make the right decision? Is he really part of the change? Does he feel like a sell-out? You're going to see that struggle with Hondo so there's going to be a lot of humanity, even with the other characters," he added. "You're going to see flaws, you're going to see our fight to maintain our strength, but in between the thrill ride and action that S.W.A.T. provides. I think [with] substance and groundedness, this is looking to be our strongest season."
S.W.A.T. returns with a two-hour premiere Wednesday, Nov. 11 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.
To stay up to date on breaking TV news, sign up for ET's daily newsletter.