Gritty police procedurals may seem completely overdone, but think of how many shows that fit the genre made for truly superior television: From Police Story to Hill Street Blues to Homicide to The Wire to The Shield, it’s clearly a rich vein to tap. But the grit level has gotten, umm, grittier in the past few years—so much so that it seems like even attempting a cop show on a major network during prime time seems like a silly idea in the wake of HBO and FX. But the first episode of NBC’s Southland does an admirable job of taking what’s come before it and making something reasonably edgy, quite good looking, and—best of all—pretty smart.
Like the best procedurals before it, Southland dives right into the action, introducing a ton of characters (all a little too attractive, but that’s network TV, I guess) and storylines, without a ton of time for backstory. That can lead to a bit of confusion (think about how much better the first season of The Wire was the second time you watched it), but ultimately makes for more rewarding television. There’s very little beating of the viewer’s head with repeated details; you’re expected to follow along, but you won’t be out of the loop if you miss a couple of minor things. We’re sure to see them again.
Anyway, the commercials made it look like the action would center on rookie cop Benjamin McKenzie, who’s spending his first day on the streets with training officer Michael Cudlitz. While their story was definitely a huge part of the pilot, the episode also served up many other characters, most notably a bunch of detectives and other patrolmen we’ll more than likely see again. But the rookie and his trainer have a pretty tough first day together, and it made for a slightly rocky start to the show: Cudlitz is right out of the “break him on his first day” school of training, basically pushing McKenzie to quit. (I can’t imagine this hazing process is really par for the course, but rather something invented for cop dramas.)
The two pull over a kid in a Ferrari who somehow knows McKenzie; it’s intimated that McKenzie’s dad is a rich lawyer, but that doesn’t come up again. The partners commiserate with other patrol cops, most notably C. Thomas Howell, who overacts and chews up every scene he’s in. (And probably some he isn’t. There’s that much chewing.) He makes Cudlitz’s clichés (“You do what they taught you in the academy, you will die”) seem downright original.
In the episode’s A-story, an innocent kid is deliberately killed by Mexican gangsters, and we’re treated to a bunch of characters rather than just brushing him off as a victim: He’s got a family that’s concerned, and a group of girls who witness his shooting are actually given some good dialogue and motivation. The one who helps crack the case does so because part of her wants to be a cop when she grows up, even though she’s currently the girlfriend of a Grape Street gangster.
Her tip leads our main patrolmen to the house of some cholos—who the cops don’t realize are the same ones responsible for the drive-by. When Tommy Howell refuses to let the rookie search one of the suspects thoroughly (insisting he be taken right to the patrol car), he pays for it with some bullets in the stomach. The rookie—this is his first day, remember—ends up killing the suspect with some well-placed rounds to the chest. It’s only then that the hard-ass Cudlitz shows his true colors—he’s actually a good cop (we think), who’s incredibly dedicated, even if it’s made him a little bit of an asshole. (And surely a rule-breaker—there goes another cliché!)
The B-story was a little less interesting, but it served to briefly introduce the detective squad, particularly Regina King, who you’ll recognize from a million TV and movie appearances, but you won’t remember which ones. (Here you go: Jerry Maguire, Friday, 24, etc.) She lucks into the capture of a child-murderer, in a plot that’s way too neatly wrapped up in an hour, but it serves to introduce both her, her handsome partner (Tom Everett Scott), and a couple of other dudes. We’ll forgive the swift, unbelievable plot and hope that others will take longer to resolve.
But based on this episode, I have high hopes for Southland. It’s smart enough to realize that a police procedural can’t thrive without a broad cast of well-drawn characters, and it’s already dropping hints that it won’t be a run-of-the-mill, easily digestible drama. Credit those that came before it for setting the bar high.
-- So Cudlitz’s character is supposed to be gay, huh? There’s just a brief shot at the end of him in a bar with a guy that was arrested “in the park” earlier in the day. This might be an added element that’s really not necessary, but we’ll see.
-- “Only 9,800 police officers patrol the city of Los Angeles, an area of 500 square miles and 4 million people…”
-- Swearing on network TV is so strange. They said “Asshole” a bunch, but they beeped out “shit.” I was worried at the beginning when Cudlitz called somebody a “knucklehead.”
-- ABGs. Anybody goes.
-- “You’re a cop because you don’t know how not to be one.”
-- They played “Fake Empire” by The National over the final scene, so clearly the creatives have good taste.