Southland: “Underwater”
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Southland: “Underwater”

It might not be the right word to describe a bleak police drama, but I’m incredibly fond of Southland. Almost all of the characters are sketched so strongly that it renders uninteresting case details nearly irrelevant. Of course dramatic chases and gripping investigations certainly help, and the best episodes of Southland hit that balance just right, giving character development across its entire ensemble while loosely connecting the pairings together through train wreck cases you can’t look away from. Other times, like tonight, when it tries to throw too much into the space of an hour, it can feel disjointed and unsubstantial, with no case or character development standing out to make any kind of impact.

The first sign that “Underwater” wasn’t up to the new Southland standard was its first case after the freeze-frame, which wrapped up far too neatly. Cooper, Tang, and Dewey examine a severed arm attached to an expensive handbag on the side of a road, and when Lydia and new partner Rueben track down a silver Ford Escape trailing a lot of blood, they find the rest of the victim in sickening detail scattered on the undercarriage of the car. The driver was probably a little too drunk and thought he hit a coyote, but there isn’t any more investigating to do. When Cooper and Tang inform the dead woman’s husband of the death, he and his mansion staff start smiling and laughing, and someone even exclaims “la bruja esta muerta” in celebration. After they walk away from that ridiculous scene, it never comes up again. It’s a despicable scenario, but one that closes itself off quickly in fifteen minutes, so that Lydia/Rueben and Cooper/Tang go out and find other cases that get the short shrift for less than an episode.

Meanwhile, Ben is getting a little too frustrated by the difficulties of his job. When he and Sammy, along with two other black cops, chase a suspect through a woman’s house, Ben manages to subdue the guy outside after dodging a swing from a metal baseball bat. Then, when confronting the woman who sheltered the suspect, he loses his cool because she didn’t even know the guy; she just wanted to protect someone that’s more like her than the cops in the neighborhood the whole time. The whole Ben boiling over thing comes out of nowhere, especially since last week his dustup with Lou Diamond Phillips was over some differences in professionalism. Instead of the show’s typically sound groundwork, Ben’s tirade against that woman, and the incident in the parking lot of Lucy’s where a couple high school girls start slapping at him and he responds with a swift punch to a fifteen-year-old’s nose, don’t just seem out of character, they’re completely out of left field.

I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of Ben McKenzie either. I think he does a fine job as Ben Sherman, but he always looks like he’s trying so damn hard, and only manages to come off like a guy playing a police officer. The strongest members of the Southland cast — Regina King, Michael Cudlitz, C. Thomas Howell are my top three — fully embody their respective members of the Los Angeles Police Department. Lucy Liu is a more believable cop than McKenzie after three plus seasons, but maybe that’s just because there hasn’t been enough time to contradict her thin but sharply drawn character yet.

What I found really surprising about tonight’s episode was the humor. This is the funniest episode of Southland I can remember. The cases didn’t mine the depths of cruelty and sadness, except for the brief and brutal detail of the vehicular manslaughter, so it felt a little easier to laugh at the funny scenes. Dewey’s monologue about porn in the XXX shop was a riot, as are most of the things that come out of his mouth totally unfiltered. The best case Sammy and Ben covered during the day was clearly the violent hilarity of Grambo, a gun-toting cat lady in a Kevlar vest who started a shootout with four cops. And the way Lucy Liu got a tweaked out streaker to turn onto a freeway, making him a problem for CHP instead of the LAPD, was a clever little touch.

You can usually rely on Southland to throw in a disappointingly on-the-nose conversation every week, but tonight there were two, and they came essentially back-to-back. First, Lydia and Rueben discuss the ethics of lying to an elderly grandmother in order to get the pair of shoes that proved a murder suspect’s guilt. Rueben suggests that the clothing evidence is the only thing pinning the guy, and that evidence frequently disappears. Their dragging conversation, about investigatory ethics, separation of judge and jury, and a reference to the democratic philosophies of “guys in togas” felt incredibly forced and artificial, the kind of posturing Southland got lost in during its first season.

On the other side of the coin, Sammy sticking up for Ben in a meeting with their captain, then reprimanding him out in the parking lot felt much more natural. Sammy knows the consequences of losing his cool in a much more dire situation than Ben found himself in when surrounded by dancing high school kids. Cops are supposed to fire back against criminal gunfire not because they’re angry, but because they’re trying to save lives. It’s a pretty obvious moral line of dialogue, but it works here. Sammy isn’t a training officer, not trying to instill a book full of lessons like Cooper was, but a partner with more experience telling Ben to keep his anger in check, because it can be dangerous. Despite that clumsiness, all of those little comedic moments kept this episode slightly in the black for me, even though nothing of consequence really happened. If Southland was still on NBC and working with a 20-plus-episode season, it could afford to sprinkle in something like this from time to time, but with only ten on TNT, this doesn’t fly. No episode from the amped up third season was as inconsequential as this one.

Stray observations:

  • The Southland theme music reminds me of Mad Men in such a weird way.
  • To a certain extent, the way the hit and run ended on such a clean, easy to prosecute note was true to life and a good dose of realistic detail. On the other hand, the pure ridiculousness of the woman’s husband and the mansion staff celebrating still doesn’t work for me at all.
  • Wu-Tang is a pretty awesome new nickname. 

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