Other cop shows get more of the glory, but over three tumultuous seasons, TNT’s Southland—formerly NBC’s Southland, until it was dropped—has quietly proved itself a major player in the genre. It’s hard to tell why the show hasn’t done better in the ratings, since it’s in roughly the same league as greats like NYPD Blue and even, at its very best moments, The Wire. (I said roughly the same league.)
The show’s third season, which concluded almost a year ago, was its best: Rookie Ben Sherman (played by Ben McKenzie) finally earned his stripes, partly by working hard and partly by becoming the adult in his relationship with injured partner John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz). There was relatively surprising death and a strange betrayal, but season three also tied up pretty nicely, without much hanging as far as plot or loose ends.
So the fourth-season premiere, “Wednesday,” could almost be the start of a new series. It reintroduces many of the main characters efficiently, catching up without retelling too much: McKenzie is now a P2, partnered with former Detective Sammy Bryant (played with edgy delight by the excellent Shawn Hatosy). Cudlitz had back surgery and apparently kicked his pill addiction. Detective Lydia Adams (Regina King) has a handsome new partner whose last job was shooting at Iraqis. And C. Thomas Howell returns as sort of sad comic relief—the loose cannon, sexist joker.
That leaves some room for new characters, and either Southland is a good enough show to attract film actors or Lucy Liu and Lou Diamond Phillips are slumming it. The former is introduced as some sort of mega-badass with a sordid history and a YouTube video—I assumed it was sexy, but was proved very wrong—and the latter is a sort of stock cop who draws the line a little too cleanly between black and white, good guys and bad, and doesn’t really give a shit. He immediately has a dust-up with by-the-book McKenzie, who doesn’t think Phillips should be letting a little kid poke a dead guy’s head wound with a stick. (Apparently that's against protocol.)
As always, the show begins with the slightly cheesy but kinda effective freeze-frame and voiceover: McKenzie and Hatosy witness a man brutally beating a girl, and they give chase. Mid-jump, the show goes to black and white and the narrator talks about the horrors of being a cop in the most dangerous parts of L.A.: “Our worst nightmare is just their Wednesday.”
And then it’s on to the stories, which Southland has been remarkably good at since its beginning. Like NYPD Blue—which Southland creator Ann Biderman wrote for—the show is easy to enjoy in individual slices, but also serves up great serials. That said, this episode didn’t offer any clues as to what a season-long story might be, but it did pack a bunch of great little plotlines into an hour. Almost too many.
The one that didn’t work that well was King’s: A crackhead witness—and former high-school acquaintance—who had been relocated shows up looking for a place to stay (and probably a place to score). It doesn’t end well, but it serves more to reintroduce King’s conflicted personality—nurturer versus no-nonsense cop who requires emotional defenses—than to drive any sort of plot.
The beat cops do a much better job at the visceral stuff (including actual viscera): A gangland shoot-out in an alley leads to an incredibly tense chase through a grade school. And when the cops finally discover the shooter bleeding out in a bathroom, their reaction is nearly as disturbing as his bloody, soon-to-be corpse—they’re relieved that no one else was hurt, but angry at the gunman. Hatosy says to the gangster, who’s gurgling on the blood spilling out of the wound in his neck: “That is one big hole in a very important spot. You are definitely not gonna make it!” Howell adds, mockingly, “Just head into the light, brother.”
Just hours later, McKenzie is back to chasing the perp from the show’s first scene when he accidentally crashes a Compton barbecue populated by badass thugs. Thinking quickly, he tells the hostile crowd that the guy he’s chasing raped a little boy, asking if they let that type of thing happen in their neighborhood. More than anything, that moment reminded me of something that might happen on The Shield, which is a high compliment.
Meanwhile, Cudlitz and Liu are called to an over-the-top suicide attempt by a crazy guy at a factory, which serves more to get their characters better acquainted—Liu doesn’t want to respond to the call because she’s in line at a food truck (the real-life Truck Norris in L.A., which does delicious-looking Filipino fusion), but Cudlitz is back to being by the book--at least for his first day back on the street.
He’s also curious, eventually, about Liu’s “video,” which the other cops allude to while harassing her. Turns out it’s not sexy after all: Her patrol camera caught Liu taking a savage beating from a giant of a man during a traffic stop. It’s another brutal moment in an intelligently brutal show.
That probably would’ve been enough for one episode, but Southland apparently wants to sink its claws into new viewers by throwing a lot of action at the screen. Just minutes before the end of “Wednesday,” a shooter busts into the station with a shotgun and just starts blasting. Several cops are hit before the shooter takes a bullet; Lou Diamond is hit, but presumably will survive. I’m not sure if this piece was the start of a larger investigation, but I think not. When asked who the shooter was, Howell says, “Just some guy.”
If this all seems a bit much for one day in the life of some L.A. cops, it probably is. (This is TV, after all.) But the little touches and real emotional conflicts make Southland far better than your average cop show. Where else would you see two tough patrolmen admitting to each other that they pissed themselves after a gunfight?
-- I can’t remember where we left things with Tom Everett Scott; is he coming back? Did King report him for selling crime-scene photos to a tabloid?
-- It’s a testament to this show that you never really know what’s going to happen or who’s going to get hurt. Just like real cop-life, I guess.
-- I hope Lou Diamond Phillips’ character—assuming he lives—gets slightly less cartoonish. Speeches like “The job is to shovel this city’s shit so the good people of this metropolis don’t know it’s there” seem a little contrived.
-- “Is that Cooper? I heard he’s riding with Pootie Tang.”