Southland premiered on NBC in the spring of 2009 and quickly established itself as the latest example of a long, distinguished sub-genre: the ensemble-cast cop drama with strong critical support and no ratings to speak of. The grandaddy of these shows was Hill Street Blues, which turned out to be the first in a string of innovative series (Miami Vice, Crime Story, Wiseguy, Twin Peaks) that, for a while there, made it look as if a crime series was the best chance someone working in network TV had to indulge in a little visual style and narrative experimentation.
Hill Street Blues eventually built up into a substantial hit, but it probably wouldn't have stayed on the air long enough to attract an audience if NBC hadn't been so ratings-deprived in 1981 that it had nothing to lose by giving the critics one hour of primetime a week to dump all their hosannas into. A dozen years later, NBC premiered Homicide: Life on the Street, which was even more warmly embraced by critics, who'd grown jaded enough to remember Hill Street Blues as having been more than a little corny. Homicide never threatened to become much of a hit at all, but NBC, by then fat and sassy and the home of "must-see TV," kept it on the air for seven years anyway. Somebody must have really loved seeing those reviews that used the series as a club to beat up on NYPD Blue.
That was then, and this is now. The great cop show of the past decade was The Wire, a series of such ambition and stature that anyone who called it a cop show within earshot of its creator, David Simon, would have probably gotten himself thrown off a roof. Because pay-cable networks rely on the buzz that generates subscription fees instead of the ratings that bring in advertising revenue, a show that's critically acclaimed and beloved by the right, if comparatively small, audience can run on HBO for as long as it likes, at least so long as it has a contemporary American setting that won't put the network out of pocket for expensive period sets and costumes.
Meanwhile, the last critically acclaimed, low-rated cop show on NBC, Boomtown, was put out of its misery after a second season that the network apparently agreed to only so it could instruct the producers to thoroughly screw it up, something they waited five or six years to do to Homicide. NBC brought Southland out with a sizable wave of hype, but after showing its first, seven-episode season and commissioning another thirteen episodes, the network took another look at the ratings and canceled the series before airing the second season, with six new episodes in the can. TNT, delighted to be given this chance to show that they, the plucky basic cable upstart, care more about good TV than the corporate dinosaur, stepped in to pick up the show, and after broadcasting the full run last year, it's now kicking off Southland's third season, consisting of the first episodes actually made on TNT's nickel. This helps to explain how it is that a show that's been on the air for two years and is starting its third season is, as of last night, only up to its fourteenth episode.
Unfortunately, ensemble drama is one area where you really do get what you pay for, and just as HBO's commitment to sustained excellence starts to get a little weak in the knees when the suits examine the projected cost of keeping a frontier town set up and running for another year, the new Southland shows the effects of cutting corners to stay within the confines of a basic-cable original-programming budget. Many of the elements that made the show worth one's time are still around, but rather then being locked firmly in place, they're rolling around inside a big, hollowed-out shell.
The focus has tightened around the three main pairs of cops: dewy-faced young patrolman Ben Sherman (Ben McKenzie) and his partner, John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz), a cranky fount of cop wisdom; Sammy Bryant (Shawn Hatosy) and Nate Morretta (Kevin Alejandro), a pair of detectives who look and act so much alike that watching them is a little like watching the mirror scene from Duck Soup if it wore a bad suit and carried a concealed weapon; and homicide detective Lydia Adams (Regina King) and whoever she's currently partnered with since her original partner, Russell (Tom Everett Scott), got his white bread ass shot by his own next-door neighbor and was subsequently transferred to desk duty.
McKenzie, whose starring role in The O.C. was a little less shrouded in the distant past when Southland first went into production than it is now, was the actor featured most prominently in the original promos. It's not his fault that his rookie character, as conceived, was a little too nice and harmless for the writers to do much with. Similarly, it's not Michael Cudlitz's fault that, in the first two seasons, he was required to spend so much time dispensing practical crime-fighting advice to the Tiger Beat pin-up sitting next to him in the squad car that he sounded as if he were narrating a year's worth of Burn Notice. Cudlitz is also yoked to a subplot about the aching veteran's addiction to prescription painkillers that's like one big shoe teetering on the edge, threatening to drop. The actor deserves big points, though, for the varied selection of grouchy-animal noises he makes as he's staggering to the bathroom to raid the medicine chest first thing in the morning. Don Martin couldn't have provided better sound effects.
But the show's real standout has always been Regina King. Some actresses who've played cops have felt the need to work overtime de-glamorizing themselves, but King, who's a striking-looking woman (she played a Rayette who did double duty in the Genius' hotel room in Ray), doesn't look either glamorous or ground down here; she's compellingly, touchingly ordinary, someone who's just committed to doing her best at her job, which happens to entail telling people that she's just pulled the broken, taped-up body of someone they love out of a cubbyhole in a ceiling. King doesn't milk the scenes where she has to readjust her conception of the limits of how terrible human behavior can be; she's believable as someone who's been processing other people's misery for a long time and has had to learn to deal with it but hasn't become numb to it.
It's weird, though, that she's still taking time out of her day to hang with her former partner. In the previous season, Lydia's persistent devotion to Russell after he was shot practically bordered on stalking, and one might have assumed that she was in denial about having to move forward without him, but that she'd eventually get with the program, the way Mike Logan on Law & Order used to get his back up whenever any actor who'd been playing his partner waddled off into the sunset to make room for Paul Sorvino and then Jerry Orbach. But Lydia and Russell are still sharing ice cream sundaes together, and unless they're barreling towards an ill-advised romance (ill-advised not just because of what it would mean for the characters professionally but because the actors don't exactly strike enough sparks together to set Yosemite on fire), they just seem to be doing it because Tom Everett Scott is still on the show for some reason.
Some of King's best scenes in the previous seasons involved her life off the job with her mother and the places where her life and the job got gummed up together, such as in the relationship that developed between her and a teenage girl who volunteered to testify against the suspects in a drive-by shooting. One big difference between the new Southland and the previous episodes, assuming the season premiere is a fair indicator of what's to come, is that the focus on the characters' private lives seems to have dried up. (That includes the domestic scenes involving Emily Bergl as the woman who seemed to have married Detective Bryant on a whim, which always brought out the best in Shawn Hatosy as an actor. Bergl shows up for just a minute at the end of this episode, to utter what fans of many a long-running show have had reason to regard as the two most hateful words in the English language: "I'm pregnant.")
If TNT has wrecked Southland by trying to scale it down and narrow its focus to what they see as its most marketable elements, that's ironic, but I'm not sure that I'd call it tragic. At its best, the show was one more really good, unusually thoughtful, well-made cop opera, and I'm not sure that the world needed one more of those, though I wasn't going to turn my nose up at it while it was there. What feels lost is the sense that the whole thing came together to amount to more than the sum of the parts.
- Early on, one of the detectives points out that "Christmas was a week ago." I don't guess there's a reason that TV series have to run on the same calendar as the rest of us, but still, I found that I appreciated this. I got a little disoriented the night before, on TNT, when it turned out that the Men of a Certain Age were just getting around to celebrating Halloween.