The LAPD is perhaps the most notorious major metropolitan police force in the country. A lot of that poor reputation comes with good reason, but Southland uses Los Angeles as a setting, not as a character. The Santa Ana winds played a role in one of the series’ standout episodes, but the show is about how being a cop bleeds into every other aspect of life, not about being a cop in Los Angeles. They may name-check parts of town or have well-researched standoffish relationships with the other law enforcement branches, but Southland isn’t as geographically specific to the police experience as many other cop shows. Which is one of the big reasons I was worried about the “mockumentary” device the moment it gets introduced. Inserting an actual documentary crew into the already realistic style of Southland takes on a certain amount of risk. The typical talking heads routine that allows — or forces, in the cases of both Cooper and Tang — the officers to say exactly what’s on their minds or to answer the question of the camera crew serving as audience surrogate in the backseat of the car. There’s potential for Cooper and Tang to merely talk at the cameras, but because of how well defined their characters are, their obvious discomfort and adversarial attitude towards the camera feels authentic, and the moments when the camera tilts down as the operator gets out of the back seat signal when a signature moment is about to be captured.
Take the scene in the bakery, with a white man demanding a storeowner complete his cake order, completely with his son Adolf’s name, and a few swastikas on top for good measure. It’s one long take, but the crew is clearly in one corner of the store, panning left and right as the actors move around. What’s much more difficult, and impressive, is how Liu, Cudlitz, and the supporting players shift through several different emotional moments in the span of a few minutes. It’s an artful and low-tech set piece that’s noticeable without overpowering the actors.
But Southland plays around with the documentary-within-a-show construct a bit, catching Dewey spouting off exactly what he always says without public scrutiny in a moment where he thinks the camera is off. In the morning briefing, Dewey’s intention to get a SAG card might be a joke, but it’s entirely plausible given his persona and that one episode with Tom Sizemore a few seasons back. He hams it up for the camera, yelling at a Plank-In on Hollywood Blvd., and gives a multilayered performance, a police officer acting like an exaggerated version of a stereotypically unhinged member of the LAPD — even if there’s some character truth buried in that act.
The final scene of the episode is where the documentary crew finally ceases to be a device and actually becomes a character. A cruel voyeur who stands silent as John Cooper struggles to subdue a suspect, suffers a neck wound, and begins to bleed out on the street. Holding that shot is excruciating, because all the man has to do is have some fucking human decency, consider that a man’s life is at risk instead of slightly higher television ratings, and drop the damn camera in order help. It’s an impossible point to miss, the useless bystander gawking at the gruesome spectacle, made all the worse by the fact that in that take the audience becomes the documentary crew, extending that thirst for intensity and violence to everyone watching. The season premiere kicked up to an extremely high level of tension with the shootout in the police department, but “Integrity Check” certainly topped that, displaying just how quickly things can go from ending a shift and turning the camera off to a desperately violent altercation.
Ben and Sammy struggle with a different kind of integrity check this week. The whole virtuous cop suspecting his renegade partner of planting evidence for revenge plot isn’t new, but there is a nice twist to how Ben finds out exactly how misplaced his suspicions are. Sammy can’t even bring himself to speak to his partner, seemingly out of rage, but being judicious, neither one of them have the moral high ground to stand on. Sammy kidnapped a man and left him stranded in the desert at night - someone Sammy suspected to be involved in the death of his former partner. That’s obviously entirely unethical, illegal, and inspired by thoughts of vengeance. On the other hand, Southland goes out of its way to make Ben questionably moral as well, using the repeated comic device of his prowess with women. The first scene after the flash-forward/voiceover shows Ben waking up after a threesome, and having to escape out a second story window when a husband shows up. He may have initial suspicions about Sammy because of how well he performed a search, but Ben is hardly innocent. Their matter isn’t settled by a long shot, but Sammy is entrenched in his honorable way of thinking, and since his crimes were committed out of loyalty and not against another officer, he’ll probably add that in with his greater experience on the force to hold a grudge against Ben.
Which brings things around to Lydia, who is again the bad kind of anchor, dragging down an otherwise nearly stellar episode. She’s back on the street as a supervisor, without her detective partner, since she’s the only available officer with training at that rank, due to some contrived circumstance that wasn’t too hard to believe. Without her typical pantsuit, it turns out that unsurprisingly Lydia is very much the same kind of domineering commander she is as a detective. She’s detail and procedure oriented, as she shows at the first crime scene she visits, trying to cover potential police brutality against a suspect. What really stuck out was the tantrum kid, with parents who employ a method of parenting that allows outbursts in the hope that children will eventually learn not to destroy their own possessions. It’s frustrating to watch Southland parade Lydia through a carousel of cases that are designed to impress different parenting styles upon her, and even more careless of Lydia to disregard the health of the baby she carries in order to stay married to her job and continue to sort out a decision.
Thankfully, when Lydia can’t run down a suspect, she goes to the hospital and gets checked out again. What clinches a transition in how she thinks about the baby is hearing the heartbeat, turning the machine on after a hospital doctor leaves, and breaking down into tears as the machine beeps, her police uniform out of focus behind her. She may not have her mind made up just yet, but now her pregnancy has progressed to a point she can’t ignore anymore.
- Messed up moment of the week: Without question, that last minute of Cooper writhing in pain, Tang applying pressure to his wound, and then fending off the fucking camera operator. Seriously, screw that guy.
- Even though there are very distinct separations between the three partnerships (except Lydia this week), I can’t in good conscience keep giving out three grades for the three plotlines. Since the faux-documentary and Lydia on her own was in this episode, I felt like the fractured grades were appropriate this once.
- I know that every week has a preview of the next episode, but showing us that Cooper will be fine really took a lot of tension out of those final shots. If that had been on a screener, it would’ve knocked me flat.