Southland: "Phase Three"
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Southland: "Phase Three"

I'm half tempted to open this review of Southland's second season premiere by just informing you that you should go back to my review of last week's episode (which I mistakenly thought was the second season premiere and rather embarrassingly reviewed as such) and tell you that I think roughly all the same things. But I do rather enjoy this episode of the show more than last week's episode, and while it's not enough to make me a believer in the show as a whole, it's something that makes me think the series still has some promise in it, if it can just correct its problem of being far too overly general about absolutely everything.

On the latest episode of the Firewall and Iceberg podcast, Alan Sepinwall and Dan Fienberg commiserate about how this show should stick to following the adventures of the beat cops, which they think tend to be more consistent and interesting than the other stuff on the show. (They also say the only character they can remember the name of is Ben, because he has the same first name as the actor who plays him.) I don't exactly agree with this point of view - I still think Regina King is the best thing this show has going for it - but I can see where they're coming from. The stuff with the beat cops feels like an episode of Cops from time to time, but it's always a vaguely interesting episode of Cops. It's the personal stuff, which tends to be what the detective storylines focus on, that feels baldly derivative.

Season two opens mid-riot, with a sudden flash to a freeze frame of Ben, a narrator intoning about how he was still not quite getting the hang of the job. It's kind of a ridiculous device, and I hope the show eventually phases it out. I get why they want to do it - in general, Southland is a show that is a little more pompous than it absolutely needs to be - but making the whole thing feel like a Ken Burns documentary doesn't lend the rest of the episode the kind of verite feel that the series so obviously wants. Honestly, if this show wants to be a faux-documentary, as they seem to want to be sometimes, they should just go all out and embrace the cinema verite and have talking heads and stuff. Instead, they settle for things like the camera following the guys on a chase and having to duck through the same small hole the cops just ducked through.

It's interesting, too, because the camera work is one of the things I think is really improved from season one to season two. Season one felt timid, sometimes, about having the camera be another character in the narrative. Season two is much more whole hog about this approach, but seeing the series go more all out makes me want to see it embrace this approach even more. Similarly, I like the way the camera sometimes seems to be searching for the characters. It's a move that the show has taken from series like The Shield and 24, but it uses that technique surprisingly well. Another thing I like about this approach is its use of LA-based location work. This series finds some pretty gorgeous vistas in some of the worse-off sections of the city, and the characters always feel at home in them in a way that some series that use a lot of location footage don't.

Unfortunately, what's not working about the show for me is still ... pretty much everything else. The series, as a whole, just feels uncomfortably generic, as though the producers think that throwing a documentary-like sheen over a fairly standard cop show will make it seem more adventurous than it actually is. The series bases its stories roughly around the arc of Ben's gradual understanding of what it takes to be a cop, but I'd be hard pressed to tell you anything about Ben beyond the fact that he's a rookie cop with a heart of gold. Now, that's not a horrible character type, I suppose, but it's not like Southland does anything with it beyond that. Everything relies almost entirely on you liking Ben McKenzie as an actor, and he's just not someone I'm a huge fan of.

All of the other characters - including the new one played by Amaury Nolasco - are similar types, and it's this inability to distinguish the characters from each other - or from characters on other cop shows - that always keeps the show just a step behind where it could be. If you really like cop shows or if you really like these actors, it might work for you, but there's always that sense that the show is coasting just a little bit, that it could be that much better if all involved just bore down and decided exactly what kind of show they were making, instead of just throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks.

I get that while Southland is not exactly a huge hit, it has a very devoted audience that thinks it's the bee's knees. And I really wish that I could get on board that bandwagon. Every time I watch the show, there are a couple of scenes that make me think the show is finally starting to pull everything together. And I often find myself genuinely involved in the Regina King plots, even though they have a fair share of cliche moments in them. But even when the series is trying a lot of things, it's just trying a lot of things. It's only about a half hour since the second season premiere ended, and I have trouble remembering much of what happened beyond that overly dramatic riot and the storyline where King tried to adjust to having a new partner, since her old one was in the hospital. Oh, and a guy got knifed in the jailhouse shower.

Again, if Southland is your cup of tea, I'm not going to begrudge you that. It's well-made, and the actors all do the best they can with what they're given. But everything that works on the show seems to be offset by something even bigger that doesn't work. But (as you notice how many of my points I've repeated from week to week) I don't know that any of the cosmetic changes made as we head into season two are big enough to override the fact that the show is, well, a little boring. In short, I can't imagine writing about this show from week to week, simply because there's no there there.

Stray observations:

  • Well, at least Nolasco didn't run around constantly yelling his girlfriend's name.
  • As mentioned, I liked this episode more than the last one, but I'm still not exactly sure why. I think that the series focused in on some of the things I like more about it in this episode, and Regina King had a more interesting subplot. At the same time, I was more invested in the Ben and his partner subplot as well, maybe because I knew where it was heading from the first shot. I dunno. Hard to put my finger on it.
Filed Under: TV, Southland

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