An episode like tonight is much closer to my ideal version of Southland. A frenetic pace of beat cops tearing through daily calls, detectives teasing out a case, and ethnic tension across the neighborhoods of Los Angeles make for the best episodes. All three of the major cases tonight centered on crimes committed by community members against their own people, a very interesting glimpse into how closer proximity between criminal and victim can quickly lead to escalating crimes. Even though the supporting characters are still around, reducing the focus to three main partnerships to start the fourth season — Cooper/Tang, Sammy/Ben, and Lydia/Rueben — has streamlined the show so that it can move more coherently through many different arcs over the course of a day.
Cases typically don’t take several twists and turns on Southland. Instead, the police respond to an incident, or the detectives follow a logical investigative route to a suspect, and then proceed to the next case or call. Some may find that boring, but I find it refreshingly realistic. That’s not to say that everything is self-contained in every episode. Sammy and Ben’s main plot involved monitoring a gangbanger-turned-informant who robbed a charter school in his own neighborhood. Sammy’s anger at gang life lingers in his actions towards Crawford, and his disinterest in hiding in plain sight to implicitly offer the guy protection from rival gangs ends up having big consequences. Ben is still getting heat from the video of him punching that teenage girl last week, but it’s working to his advantage with the ladies. Even though he gets crowned the Dumbest Cop Alive at a bar with Sammy, it’s pretty clear to me that Sammy is really the one to blame. Ben may have a viral video to his name, but now Sammy ignoring his captain’s orders is starting to get people killed.
Southland has always tried to give all an encompassing view of what it means to be a member of the police force in Los Angeles, on and off the clock. Some characters stayed compelling outside of the uniform, Michael Cudlitz and Regina King especially. Others, like Shawn Hatosy’s Sammy Bryant, became significantly less interesting when their personal problems interfered with their work. Bryant’s wife was by far my least favorite character on the show, and not just because she’s incredibly annoying, but also because she was one-dimensional and only took negative action. Lucy Liu’s character has slowly started to come into better focus, with a video of her notorious struggle with an imposing suspect, then last week’s similar confrontation leaving her with a nasty shiner. I’ve been very impressed with just how easily Officer Tang has become a familiar regular, bringing out a side of Cooper never seen before, becoming a team that’s incredibly fun to watch. The same can’t be said of Lydia’s new partner Rueben, who spends most of this episode practicing a speech for his daughter’s quinceañera in a blatant attempt at exposition. The case Lydia and Rueben investigate, involving the death of a Latin American woman who perpetrated loan fraud within her own community, worked out logically and without much fuss, but the most interesting bit was Lydia’s phone call after everything was over.
“Community” wasn’t without a few stumbling blocks though, which kept this episode from hitting the peak of season three episodes like “The Winds” and “Failure Drill.” I was a bit sad that despite the great rapport that Cudlitz and Liu have quickly established, two of their cases felt rushed and heavy handed. First, there’s the burglary at a Jewish woman’s home, where the victim’s irate father scolds her for calling the police on the Sabbath. Their exchange, with the man apparently having no regard for his daughter’s life in light of rigorously upholding the Sabbath, and the daughter spouting off some heavily on-the-nose criticism of religious dogma, temporarily took me out of what was mostly a great flow through the entire episode. The case also wrapped up a bit too quickly for my tastes, with Cooper asking some fairly dumb generic questions about Judaism before the woman spots the burglar on the street and gets back her stolen items almost immediately.
The other problem was the very end of the episode, where Tang and Cooper double back to a building fire on a street where they previously handled an assault of a released child molester by a suspicious neighbor. Clearly someone attacked the man again, and when Cooper yells to the lingering crowd, several different neighbors claim they started the fire, in a strange “I’m Spartacus” moment that had me rolling my eyes in disbelief as the show cut to black. Tang and Cooper’s conversation over lunch about the molester is handled nicely, with shades of Cooper’s opinion on his father and other criminals earning back their rights, and Tang playing devil’s advocate before agreeing. But the building fire was confusing, disappointing, and hokey.
Still, tonight had hands-down my favorite scene of the season so far, when Cooper and Tang respond to an older man who’s been sucker punched by a young guy. Instead of arresting the younger man, Tang and Cooper listen to the guy who got hit, who only wants one free punch to settle the score. A fantastic exchange ensues, where Cooper and Tang lay down ground rules — “flinch, and you go to jail,” “duck, and you go to jail” — before the older guy jumps the count and decks the younger guy on one instead of three. It was short, sweet, uncluttered, and the perfect kind of street justice with no messy paperwork that we’ve come to expect from Cooper. Plus, it was just a damn cool way to solve something so petty. Moments like that exemplify why I really like Southland, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this scene remains one of my favorites at the end of the season.
Judging by Lydia’s phone call tonight and the promos for next week, we’re about to jump headlong into her personal life. Sammy and Cooper may look well adjusted, but it stands to reason that it’s only a matter of time before those ticking time bombs go off. Whatever direction Southland goes in from here, it’s done more than just a good job reestablishing a foundation. Though the cast has been pared down, Lucy Liu’s transition into the force has been seamless, and now there’s a solid new status quo to deviate from when the cases start getting more hectic and personal lives begin interfering with work like always.
- Messed up moment of the week: After Sammy handcuffs Crawford to the telephone poll, he runs after Ben to try and apprehend the second suspect. When they go back, Crawford is slumped over with a butcher knife sticking out of his back.
- The first shot of the two cheerleader looking girls that Sammy and Ben talk to and eventually take out to the bar was a ridiculously gratuitous low angle. Not that I’m complaining.
- Cooper’s response when Tang doesn’t immediately leap off a second-story balcony to chase a burglar: “You know…my old partner would have jumped.”