So much has changed season-to-season on TNT’s Southland that at first it’s easy to feel unmoored by the stability of the fifth season premiere. Only one major character departed the show—Lucy Liu’s Officer Tang, since she got called up to the broadcast networks on Elementary—but she was only there for a season by design, already split off from Michael Cudlitz’s Officer John Cooper in the final few episodes. Everyone else is back—and the big new addition, Ben McKenzie’s contemporary Chad Michael Murray, is for now a background player, though that will most likely change as the season kicks into gear.
The term “Bats And Hats” in police slang refers to cops equipped with helmets and batons, used in riot situations, like the clash with civilians around the midpoint of this episode. But it also can be used to signify a big disagreement or personality clash, people who are obviously not getting along. Southland has always been adept at making this kind of subtle suggestion, then laying out several different examples and interpretations throughout an episode, and this premiere is no exception. In the morning before work, Lydia goes from nursing her son to examining a crime scene; Cooper quarrels with his lover over whether to use his vacation days to go to Palm Springs; Sammy shaves while listening to the radio and takes his son from his ex-wife, while Ben Sherman gets a fresh haircut to receive a commendation.
Southland goes to great lengths to distinguish between the professional and personal lives of the LAPD. But more importantly is how the show operates right on the line between the two, where professional duty becomes personal vendetta, or when personal disputes or baggage bleeds into professional decision making. Lydia, Cooper, and Sammy all wrestle with this division, and the bookend montages at the beginning and end of the episode suggest that those personal moments inform and affect their actions while on the job.
Regina King’s Detective Lydia Adams was strung out on her own for most of last season, to the detriment of her ability to carry the show along with Cudlitz. So it’s nice to see that, at least initially, she’s still partnered with ex-soldier Ruben Robinson. Lydia’s newborn son Christopher isn’t sleeping through the night, but that’s not going to slow her down at all. Last season, she decided to keep the child, but now, it looks as though she regrets the decision. A fiercely private person already, she doesn’t want to chat with Rueben about her son, doesn’t have a picture of him on her phone, and hesitates to go into her house to relieve her poor mother from childcare duties. Lydia has always been married to her job, and she’s great at riding that ethical line to get things done—as displayed by her tactics to get a male rape victim to admit what happened to him and allow doctors to collect a rape kit for evidence. She may be a bitch, but she knows how to get the work done. Being a mother, and turning off that part of her that makes her such a talented detective, isn’t proving to be as easy or satisfying as she may have wanted.
Cooper bared his soul to a struggling gay teenager in last season’s best episode, and now the show has loosened a bit on depicting his life. When he quarrels with his lover of three years, it’s clearly not the first time they’ve had the discussion, but even as a short conversation, it suggests a much deeper rift. His lover is ready to commit, to make something of their partnership, but Cooper likes things the way they are, even as they get a bit too old to be keeping it casual. Like his struggles with pill addiction, Cooper brings this emotional trauma to work, and exerts his authority on Officer Steele, his new P1, a former soldier who took the job for the pay and benefits, and constantly notes the similarly futile struggles of the war and keeping the peace in Los Angeles. When they happen upon a brutally violent scene that turns out to be a movie set, Cudlitz gets to show off why he’s the rock on Southland. He chides the director for moronically taking up valuable police resources, and controls Steele when he flies off the handle after the director childishly asks for a second take, only with guns out this time. It’s one of those teaching moments Cooper reveled in so much with Officer Sherman, and this time, he lectures Steele on keeping control when blowing up at a moron. Steele gets his chance at redemption when he and Cooper respond to a shooting at a music shop that turns out to be one of Southland’s trademark vignettes depicting the stupid shit beat cops deal with on a day to day basis.
But that control Cooper shows isn’t unflappable, he’s just a much better actor than Steele knows, better at bottling up the truth but letting the rage seep out. When he returns home, his lover has moved out entirely, three years gone just like that, and Cooper only has a bottle of Maker’s Mark to console him. Last season Cooper met with his sponsor (Lawrence Gilliard Jr., D’Angelo from The Wire) a few times, but that slope is always looming in Southland, and everyone rides so close to the edge that it’s too easy to slip.
Lastly, there’s Sammy, who’s still dealing with his incorrigible bitch of an ex-wife, unquestionably the worst character Southland has ever created. Sammy clearly cares about his son, and worries that Tammy is trying to paint him as an unfit parent when she’s the one taking child support but still using a dangerous car seat. Sammy blabs on about his marital problems to Ben too much, but Officer Sherman is a bit too caught up in his own self-aggrandizement to care about family problems, even planting seeds of doubt in Sammy’s mind about the actual paternity. Ben used to be so much like Sammy—hopeful and idealistic—but somewhere in the back half of last season, Sherman lost his way, and now he’s just another disaffected, aimless cop who does good work but can’t get the stain off when he clocks out.
Southland excels at a particularly difficult brand of storytelling, and one that seems to have lost its standing with critics, who as many have observed have shifted to recognizing strong serialized storytelling as the best of the medium. It deals very obliquely in serialized stories, continuing small threads for each major character each season. But far more important are the quotidian issues faced by the LAPD, the short episodes of happening upon a crime scene, comforting a victim, the officer who has the offensive cognitive dissonance to discuss party plans when a dead woman’s sits in a bathroom less than 20 feet away. Each episode feels like a different collection of short vignettes, the kind of interconnected, woven narrative typically found in movies with big casts by someone like Stephen Gaghan.
Southland is the perfect example of ambition within a largely episodic show. It’s intricately detailed, the most realistic portrayal of metropolitan police life on television. It’s sensational and gruesome—there’s a lot of blood, profanity, and censored nudity in this premiere—but this captures the experience of being a cop in a constantly combative environment like lightning in a bottle. It’s an elaborate patchwork narrative, but one that works effectively on an episodic level. Southland is a formidable television show, one that doesn’t get enough credit for the work it does, but now that it has finally found some stability, maybe it will get more attention.
- Welcome to another season of Southland. I’m really excited to dig into these episodes, and I’m really anticipating the fifth episode of the season, which will be directed by Regina King and written by Zack Whedon.
- HOLY SHIT Moment Of The Week: The guy throwing a woman off the second story was an obvious early candidate, but it gets disqualified for being a fake-out. Luckily(?) there’s another easy pick: the gruesomely bloody fight in the bathhouse.
- A very tense moment in the gay bathhouse as Ben yells at Sammy not to touch the bloody fighters for fear of getting AIDS. Southland really mines the quiet moments and little scenes for a surprising amount of depth.
- C. Thomas Howell is still electric as the old-school grizzled manchild Officer Dewey Dudek. His speech to Cudlitz with a giant streak of blood running down his face is another great distillation of the character.
- Sammy freaks out when he and Sherman run into an “integrity check” that could’ve gotten them killed. But it’s hard to forget that Sammy isn’t exactly clean—he drove a guy out to the desert with the intention of killing him in retribution for his former partner a few seasons ago, and he just left the guy there. So he’s not exactly squeaky clean.
- Another intriguing Sammy moment: He leaves the Ben/Chad Michael Murray celebration at a strip club early in order to check in on the elderly woman whose sisters is found murdered earlier in the episode, and cleans up the bathroom that was left bloody and horrifying.
- “You know what else sucks, Jerry?” Michael Cudlitz has mastered this patronizing tone when talking to absolute idiots.
- “Permission to toy with these people, sir? Or do you want them all to yourself?”
- “Detective. You’re a real bitch.” Yeah, but she gets shit done.