As a first-grader at Pleasant Green Community School in Kansas City, Kan., Aaron Rahsaan Thomas earned an early victory with the printed page.
“We had an assignment where you had to write about your favorite outfit. I had a lot of fun creating a story about a Spider-Man outfit I had,” he recalls. “I was 6 years old. That was the first time I remember having a lot of fun writing anything.”
The KCK native has translated that fun childhood activity into a fun and lucrative career. Thomas has worked his way up the Hollywood ladder, first as a writer on such shows as “Friday Night Lights” and “Numb3rs,” then as a writer-producer of “Sleepy Hollow,” “CSI: NY” and “The Get Down.” Thursday, Nov. 2, finds him shepherding the debut of his most elaborate project yet.
“I would describe ‘S.W.A.T.’ as a modern take on a classic TV series about the police who are called in during the most dire situations,” says Thomas, creator and executive producer of the new CBS drama.
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The prime-time show centers on Daniel “Hondo” Harrison (Shemar Moore), who grew up in the inner city, then became a Los Angeles police officer.
“He finds himself in the unique position to understand both sides of the Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter debate,” Thomas says.
Thomas pitched the series based on his similar upbringing in Kansas City, where black neighborhoods battled their own thorny and complex relationship with law enforcement. That familiarity provided him with a distinct perspective on how to approach a police procedural.
“When people initially look at ‘S.W.A.T.,’ they’ll think it’s more of the same: It’s got initials, it’s got cops, it’s on CBS. But as people tune in, they’ll see we’re dealing with interesting topics. And we’re putting these characters in positions where they have interesting views on those topics,” he says.
The 40-year-old admits it’s always tricky contending with a major network that seeks the widest viewership possible but hopes to alienate as few viewers as possible.
“If you want to deal with a hot-button topic, you want to do it in a way where you’re exploring it but not telling the audience how to think or feel,” he says.
The original series launched in 1975 but was canceled in its second season because of the controversy surrounding its vivid violence. (Which, by today’s standards, seems tame.) But the first “S.W.A.T.” is more fondly remembered for its theme song, a pounding instrumental composed by Barry De Vorzon that topped Billboard’s charts in 1976.
Even though he had no recollection of watching that series, Thomas still recognized the catchy theme for various reasons.
“In addition to being popular on its own, the song was a huge staple of hip-hop,” he says. “The break portion was one of the most popular songs for break dancers, the b-boys, to get down to in the ’80s. So there’s a whole segment of the population that knows the theme in a way you might not expect.”
The producer confirms his show features a “modernized” version of the tune he describes as the “same song with the same chords but in a cool update that people are gonna like.”
Thomas was born in KCK the year after the original “S.W.A.T.” went off the air.
“Growing up in Kansas City, it’s not as if you’re surrounded by people who aspire to write for a living. It was a few years before I realized it was something I could actually do professionally. I always did it as a hobby,” he says.
That said, he did have one hometown connection to a future superstar.
“I used to change Janelle Monae’s diapers,” he says. “We had a nickname for her — I won’t embarrass her by saying it — but she went to my church (Pleasant Green Baptist). My mom used to babysit her. I grew up with her family.”
Thomas attended Pembroke Hill High School. There he played cornerback and tailback on the football team. (“I was the slender speedy guy,” he says.)
He also started making student films. He won a few awards at the Kan Film Festival, which encouraged him to pursue the career upon graduation.
But like a lot of Kansans before him, he encountered a fundamental roadblock.
“I didn’t know anyone. Not one person in the industry,” he says. “So how do I get to a point where I have a shot at doing it?”
Thomas turned to the big screen for guidance. He headed to Morehouse College in Atlanta for a purely instinctual reason.
“I went there because Spike Lee and Samuel L. Jackson went there,” he says.
In 1997, after two years at Morehouse, he transferred to the University of Kansas to be closer to home. He landed a job as a production assistant at Lawrence’s Channel 6 on Sunflower Cablevision.
“That was the closest thing to a job in the industry that was around,” he says of the recently defunct station.
“I was able to get experience on the production side as a cameraman. We shot a lot of football, basketball and baseball games. I had an understanding of what it was like to work with a crew, what the hours were like, how a camera works, how editing works. It was an on-the-job mini film school.”
Upon graduating from KU with a degree in English literature, he applied to the master’s program at USC School of Cinematic Arts.
“One of the happiest days of my life was getting the acceptance letter from USC. Sometimes you can see where there’s a crossroads in your life,” says Thomas, who moved to L.A. in 1999.
Ted Braun, a USC instructor and filmmaker of the acclaimed 2007 documentary “Darfur Now,” met the student Thomas when teaching a fundamentals of screenwriting class. They soon discovered the shared connection of being born in KCK.
“He’s got great technique, so his scenes are sharp and delightful to watch. And he’s got a natural, familiar ease with storytelling,” Braun says of Thomas. “But what stays with you is his emotional honesty. Some writers slice thin; Aaron cuts to the bone. He goes right to the core of what’s happening between characters.”
While at USC, Thomas earned a gig as an intern and writer’s assistant on the fledgling Showtime series “Soul Food.”
“I got to see exactly what TV writers do on a day-to-day basis, tossing ideas to each other,” he says. “I realized, ‘There’s a job where you get to go to work, brainstorm creative ideas and get paid to do that all day with other creative and smart people? Sounds great!’ ”
Until he could reach that plateau, he toiled at a lot of day gigs, including a stint as a tax consultant for an insurance firm in downtown L.A.
“I called it Mount Doom because the building was built with black glass. It’s still downtown, and whenever I roll past it I get shivers,” he says.
“It was as non-creative as you could get. But it had regular hours, which meant I could go home and write. … While I was there, I used that as motivation: ‘I definitely don’t want to do this for much longer.’ ”
While Thomas contributed to a number of TV series — and wrote two movies, including the Jean-Claude Van Damme action pic “Assassination Games” — a trio of his projects really stood out. He deems the NBC football drama “Friday Night Lights” (2006-2011) his “best professional experience.” He also points to the Netflix musical throwback “The Get Down” (2016) as his “most unique television experience.”
Perhaps his most personal project is “Trojan War,” his installment of ESPN’s “30 for 30” series. The 2015 documentary chronicling the rise and fall of the USC football program during coach Pete Carroll’s tenure represents his lone directorial credit.
“I get a lot of feedback on that from particular corners — and those are different corners than the people who watch some of the scripted shows,” says Thomas, who still teaches screenwriting as an adjunct professor at USC.
“It’s a great platform to tell stories on. I remain a fanboy when it comes to ‘30 for 30.’ I loved the O.J. doc they did. And ‘The Two Escobar’s,’ that was one of my favorite films, period.”
While he’s obviously a huge USC fanboy (and dresses the part on college game day), he reveals most days he’s wearing Royals or Chiefs gear.
“If you see a KC hat out here, it’s not a style choice. Somebody is wearing it deliberately,” he says.
All his production experiences have led to the point where he’s confident and ecstatic to take charge of his own show.
“Aaron has an interesting dichotomy in his life and work that makes him different in our business,” says “S.W.A.T.” co-creator and showrunner Shawn Ryan.
“Aaron is comfortable in — and writing about — a ton of different worlds. He’s able to identify with and sympathize with a lot of different characters. … He’s also great in terms of being a mentor to younger writers.”
The reboot of “S.W.A.T.” — which also spawned a hit movie in 2003 — debuts with a pilot episode penned by Thomas and Ryan. It’s directed by Justin Lin, the talent behind “Star Trek Beyond” and four “The Fast and the Furious” sequels.
Quite the big budget series with lofty network expectations.
“The most misunderstood aspect is there’s a lack of artistry or craftsmanship,” Thomas says of the assumptions he faces running a prime-time drama.
“For some people, they may assume when you have a network show that’s a larger order than a smaller cable show, somehow there’s more of an industrial approach to churning out episodes. But there’s a specific learned skill to crafting these episodes.”
He considers the disparity between writing an indie program and a major network one as “exercising different muscles.” To him, though, it’s all about storytelling. Ultimately, his intent remains the same, no matter what the medium.
“We’re not just entertainers,” Thomas says. “You do have an impact on how people communicate with each other, their reference points. You want to have fun, but at all times you want to remember you have a responsibility at what you put out artistically.”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Where to watch
“S.W.A.T” premieres at 9 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 2, on CBS.