When I reviewed the season premiere of Southland six weeks ago, I expressed my concern that, in its transition to a basic cable show with a reduced budget, the series had been forced to trim back its grander ambitions and was on its way to turning into just another cop opera. Happily, I seem to have had my head up my ass on that one, and in subsequent weeks, the show has succeeded in adjusting its scale while handsomely keeping its focus on character development. This has especially paid off like gangbusters with regard to the performances of Regina King, who's been able to step up her game, thanks to her character's bristly partnership with another woman detective (played by Jenny Gago), and Michael Cudlitz, whose Officer John Cooper was given most of last week's episode to wallow in his lonely misery like a pig in shit.
The show has also taken the right approach to thinning out its onscreen personnel, having one of its regulars, Nate Moretta (Kevin Alejandro), killed in perhaps the most stupid and pointless way imaginable that didn't involve a flight of stairs and a roller skate. Alejandro, who had to leave the series to take a part on True Blood, didn't get to go out in a blaze of glory, gunned down by some special guest villain or engulfed in an orange fireball while shoving a kid out of harm's way. Moretta and his partner, Sammy (Shawn Hatosy), were just tooling home when they decided to stop their car to remind a street full of gang members that they had to show the cops some respect, at a moment when the feeling in the crowd turned out to be, uh, no they didn't.
Tonight, it was Shawn Hatosy's turn to smolder and suffer in silence, which marked a change of pace for his character, since smashing glass and throwing people up against the nearest hard surface has always pretty much been his default setting. Reporting back to work after his partner's funeral and wearing an ashen pallor and a sort-of-mustache that made him look as if he'd stuck his head under the couch after popping his bubble gum, he had to make a show of being under control before being allowed to squeeze back into his old uniform and turned loose on the unsuspecting civilian population with his new partner for the day, Bokeem Woodbine. Sammy being Sammy, he hadn't been out there long before he was running people down on foot and trying to drown them in an inch of standing water in order to point up his message that he was back and he was pissed.
Luckily, Bokeem Woodbine knows a thing or two about the importance of closure, and he helped guide Sammy back to the scene of his Moretta's murder and oversee a tense standoff that played like a very weird and dangerous form of encounter therapy. As Sam Spade said in The Maltese Falcon, when a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it. The best thing about this whole thread of the episode was the tag at the end, which implied that Sammy might be settling into the hole left in his late partner's family in a way that felt more eerie than touching. Sam Spade would have had something to say about that, too. (Sammy was already bunking at Moretta's house when the worst befell his partner, because he was in the process of breaking up with his own wife. Actually, the romantic breakups on Southland tend to be so vitriolic, even when they always appeared to be as inevitable as Sammy's, that a spouse whose marriage ends only because he got himself beaten to death in the street can seem to be taking the easy way out.)
The main action of "Cop or Not" dealt with a gory double murder at the home of a movie star, or, as Regina King's Lydia put it, "celebrity death in the Twitter age." There were echoes of details from the tabloid tales of O. J. Simpson and Alec Baldwin, and the dazed chief suspect got to drop the names of Tony Scott and Sonny Chiba in the very same speech. (Arriving at the scene of the crime, one detective looked it over and said, "Wasn't this the house in the Snoop Dogg video?") John Cooper and his well-meaning but ever-feckless charge, Ben (Ben McKenzie), were obliged to spend their working day camped out in front of the property, directing traffic and discouraging the paparazzi, a misuse of precious manpower resources that made Cooper grumpy. His authentically bleeped-out dialogue seemed to feature more bleeps than usual. Of course, grumpiness is Cooper's default setting, but still, a quick scene of him getting out of bed in the morning revealed that he'd gotten laid the night before, a major break for a guy who'd last been seen, the week before, crouching by the side of a dusty road loudly mourning the loss of his pain medication with an ambiguous, multi-layered intensity that most actors playing Lear wouldn't be able to bring to the death of Cordelia. (For what it's worth, Cooper's sleeping bedmate was male, which should settle a question that I understand the writers and Cudlitz thought they'd already answered several episodes back, only to learn that some viewers still hadn't gotten the memo.)
"Cop or Not" wasn't the strongest Southland episode of this season. Just as the show seemed to be dwelling on Sammy's guilty rage over Moretta's death, at least partly because it couldn't leave the matter unaddressed, the celebrity-death story idea felt a little obligatory, as if any show about crime in Los Angeles would have to say something about it eventually. But the show's strengths were evident in the off-center way it went at the tired subject. There was an element of wishful thinking in the quick efficiency with which it hurtled along, picking up, examining, and discarding every piece of the story, from the famous suspect's back story to the role the media plays in shaping the news and, ultimately, justice itself. (Compare that to Law & Order's uncharacteristically drawn-out take on the O.J. circus, which took three episodes to wrap itself up.)
The case ended with the strong suggestion that the movie star suspect was innocent but had been destroyed anyway, a revelation that had a kick to it but was all the more potent for practically taking place in a distant corner of the screen. Lydia seemed to be in danger of losing her career because of some bullshit involving the careless handling of some crime scene photos that wound up being shown on TMZ; that, not what really happened at the site of Snoop's old video, was what was most on her mind, and it was what the show seemed to care about most, too. The great thing about Southland is that it cares enough about its own characters to always remember where its priorities are.