Back when NBC canceled Southland before airing any of the episodes that had been produced for the show's second season, there was much hue and outcry through the land about how NBC had abandoned its original mission as being a home of quality television. Now, it was said, the network was turning exclusively to Jay Leno, and anyone who wasn't him was going to have to just suck it. (And then a few months later, we all learned just how much they could suck it.) And innocent cop dramas from veteran producers like John Wells - who brought NBC one of its biggest hits of all time in ER - would have to be sacrificed to make way for the maniacal Leno's voracious appetite for TV time.
There was also plenty of writing about how Southland was a show on the right network for a show of its pedigree but now on a network that didn't have a natural timeslot for it. NBC renewed it thinking it would get a show that could slot nicely into a 9 p.m. slot. Instead, it got a series that was just too dark for that time period, and the network had but one 10 p.m. slot (on Sundays) to go around. In that way, the cancellation made a bit of sense. The series hadn't exactly set the ratings world on fire in its first season, and in its second season, it seemed unlikely that it would work at 9 p.m., ratings-wise. Its content was really suited for 10 p.m., ideally on a cable station. (To say nothing of the potential FCC fines should it stay at 9 p.m.)
Now, there's probably still more to say about how the quality, workplace drama seems to have mostly migrated to cable networks or about how the broadcast networks are increasingly losing their toehold on the mass audience or how broadcast networks attempting to do lightened versions of cable shows probably isn't the way to bring that mass audience back, but all of the talk about how NBC's cancellation of Southland betrays some part of its essential reason for being ignores one critical fact: Southland just isn't a very good show.
Is it awful? No. But is it the reinvention of the network cop drama NBC probably hoped it was ordering? Not at all. Southland is Wells' (and creator Ann Biderman's) attempt to blend the harsher tone of cable dramas like The Shield with the multiple cops on multiple story arcs appeal of shows like Hill Street Blues, which used to be NBC's dramatic bread and butter. It was always a show that felt like it might pull it together just enough to become a compelling watch, but it never did enough of that to become vital. This is a shame because the workplace drama - broadly speaking, dramas set in workplaces that are more concerned with the people who work there and the social issues they face than the actual work done there - is a format that's badly in need of a rejuvenation, just the sort of thing that could hit big on the networks. (The last successful iteration of it was probably The West Wing, so it's been away long enough for it to seem "fresh," I would wager.)
In season two, Southland has improved on some things. The roaming, documentary-style camerawork seems tighter and more focused. There's an increased focus on Regina King's Detective Lydia Adams, who was always the series' best character. The new title sequence is stylish and builds to an abrupt close that seems to suggest the series will be more ambitious than it actually is. And it looks like they've stepped up the budget in some areas, so the series is able to do more exciting action sequences, like tonight's manic car ride through what appears to be the LA River bed. (And, honestly, I can't tell the LA from the San Gabriel or any other rivers. I'm a bad Angeleno, I know.)
But the vast majority of the show is so utterly generic. It's so committed to being a blend of The Shield and Hill Street Blues that it somehow grabs the most boring parts of each and tosses them together into an utterly bland stew. The series wants to be both about the detectives and cops out in the field and about them at home, but the cases in the field lack the grit and grim outlook that mark the best cable crime dramas, from something as groundbreaking as The Wire to something as banal but well-constructed (on occasion) as The Closer. I can barely stand to watch The Closer, but the intricate construction of its mysteries leaves the half measures of Southland in the dust.
This would be fine if the show were truly pursuing a sense of how these cops spend their day-to-day lives and struggle with the exhaustion that comes from working this job. Instead, we get things that feel like quick hits into the detectives' jobs and their lives. Adams is dealing with trying to build bonds with her family. Ben McKenzie's Ben Sherman is trying to blend a demanding job with a new girlfriend that he's embarrassed to call his girlfriend. Another detective is worried about the path that his daughter is headed down. The personal life stories on shows like NYPD Blue or Hill Street worked because the characters were so well-drawn, their personalities so vivid that they made for compelling portraits of people living on the edge of right and wrong. On Southland, only Adams is able to make that leap, and that's mostly because King is just dragging the writing along with all her strength.
Again, this might work if the cases were at all interesting, but most of them feel too watered down. The cops finding body parts lying around in the middle of nowhere might be interesting (if it weren't something every other cop show had tried at one time or another), but here, it doesn't feel like it leads to much of anything at all. Other on-the-job issues - like two cops trying to deal with one of their illnesses - either feel overdone or undercooked. Everything here stems from just how undeveloped the characters are.
Now, all of that might stem from how little time the show has had to worry about these things. It had a seven-episode first season, and now its second season has been fraught with problems, as the show tried to work out a deal with NBC, then had to find an entirely new network to air it. TNT also doesn't seem like the most natural home for a show that wants to be gritty, since the network is home to mostly glossy takes on detectives and other working folk. But that's not really an excuse for how little the series has managed to make even two or three of these characters into the compelling figures every good drama needs at its center. Southland wants to be a definitive chronicle of what it means to be a cop in Los Angeles in this day and age, but it's always held back by its own inability to better follow its own greatest influences.
- I'll bet NBC is wishing it hadn't canceled this right about now. I'll bet they're also wishing they'd picked Life up for 13 episodes or so. Stupid move, NBC!