Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
We may earn a commission from links on this page

Southland: “Under The Big Top”

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Think of police officers as circus performers. They put on their uniforms with the shiny badges and hop in their Crown Vics, their clown cars—and a good portion of Los Angeles probably sees the LAPD as circus clowns, metaphorically speaking. At work they’re on stage, performing for the people as much as protecting them. But when they get up in the morning, and get back home at night, or inside that station with nobody else around, the mask comes off, and they show who they really are.


John Cooper’s boyfriend of a few years left him in the season premiere, packed everything up and got the hell out of dodge while he was at work, nothing but an empty closet and a previously unheard echo to come back to. But John doesn’t take it too badly—he embraces the casual encounter, the no strings attached arrangement, so when he gets out of the shower in the morning—with a gratuitous shot of his ass, but nobody cares—and asks the guy he had over if he wants breakfast, he’s actually happy when the guy declines and only half-heartedly says he’ll call again sometime.

Sammy has his son Nate, but an off-screen, unnamed court official watches over their haphazard playtime. He’s a loving father, intent on doing whatever he needs to in order to provide for his son. But his house—in the neighborhood he advised Ben to buy into—has crappy plumbing that keeps the water in the sinks dangerously hot for a baby. Of course Sammy can’t afford any of this, and the unbroken shot, looking across the room at Sammy as he struggles to show how he connects with his son, depicts a desperate man nearing the end of his rope. The last time a cop was desperate for money on this show, he shot himself in the shoulder to commit insurance fraud.


Ben Sherman loves the thrill of something new, and his new squeeze, Brooke the elementary school teacher, has him caught for the time being. She’s got him, and keeps him interested, because she isn’t fawning all over him as the greatest cop to walk the streets of Los Angeles. She likes him, but “grades on a curve,” and it’s that slight demerit that appeals to Sherman’s sense of self-importance, his ever-inflating ego.

Lydia meets up with the father of her son Christopher. He was two-timing his wife with a different girl, and now he’s getting divorced, and wants to be a part of Christopher’s life. Lydia says everything is fine—emphasizes how fine things are for her and her son so strongly that not a soul would believe her, and glosses over her mother’s death. The emotion she felt when she called the father of her child was “just what happens” after your mother dies.

The episode begins with Sammy and Ben chasing a bank robber, who has the ingenious idea to toss stacks of money in the air so civilians will interfere with the cops trying to apprehend him. The stolen money comes from a ruthless and potentially corrupt bank in Los Angeles, so the crime is deemed somewhat heroic, with people lined up for miles along the escape path waiting for their surprise handouts. But this is one of those weeks where the freeze frame/voiceover provides the cheesiest possible introduction. Being on “the LAPD is a ticket to the greatest show on earth,” and Ben Sherman has a “front row” ticket as he jumps on the MTA, separated from Sammy. Considering the viral videos from last season, it’s surprising that nobody catalogues the savage beat down he gives the bank robber, but once it’s through, the shot of a woman walking forward to collect the remaining loose bills is a great touch. This is the big time, taking down a high-profile robbery followed on television, penetrating social media—but in a way that makes the cops into bad guys for preventing other people from getting a cut of the stolen cash. That’s the tough part about being a cop: upholding the law even when it’s overwhelmingly unpopular.

Southland doesn’t get enough credit for being darkly and wryly hilarious. Lydia and Ruben’s case starts out gruesome and unthinkable, but only gets funnier from there, as they interview a burlesque dancer/party girl/drug addict with a penchant for amazingly quotable hungover dialogue, eventually tracking everything to the supposed victim, who faked his own death to avoid drug and gambling debts. The yelling match between the guy and his girlfriend is the funniest moment yet this season, and Ruben appropriately cannot contain his laughter.


Cooper and Lucero respond to various calls. A man slaughters a goat in his bathroom. Confused, covered in blood, holding a butcher knife, the officers confront him. Cooper loses his appetite at the sight. But the more pivotal moment is later, when they confront a man who attempted suicide with a gun, but only wounded his ear. Cooper pulls up a chair, and attempts humorous comfort. The man’s wife left him, and he can’t cope with the echoing sound in the house, the sound of his loneliness. Cooper suggests buying a carpet.

The plots intertwine more than many recent episodes of Southland. Dewey, Cooper, and Lucero discover the boiled fake remains that kick off Lydia and Ruben’s murder. And while Sherman and Sammy chase down the bank robbers, everyone else watches the news footage on television of YouTube clips of people celebrating the free cash. This is what the best episodes of Southland are able to do: gracefully interlock details or encounters between plots while still maintaining discrete goals for each pair of characters. Each character starts the day on a distinct note, and after the events of the day, “Under the Big Top” circles back to everyone to get the last beat of the day and illustrate a progression.


In the precinct, baby toys and supplies cover Lydia’s desk, deliveries from the father. Ruben, typically so content to chip away on the edge of Lydia’s veneer while she boils underneath, finally breaks out a sledgehammer to shatter her pompous disregard for everyone else. She’s correct that Ruben offers up his personal information, but ignores that he does it as a means of connecting with a friend and a partner and not out of some selfish compulsion to force his life onto her—something Sammy could learn a bit about. But Ruben “cares too much to keep [his] mouth shut” this time. Though Lydia shares bare scruples of information with him, Ruben is a detective, he can fill in the gaps, and knows essentially every step of the affair up to the present. Refusing help and preventing Christopher’s father from being a part of his life would be a huge mistake, and as Ruben says, one that her son won’t forgive her for. It’s the most important scene for Ruben’s character in the whole time he’s been on the show, stepping up and becoming an equal to Lydia, a partner instead of a liability to her work.

Sammy, desperate to defeat his ex-wife in a custody battle, unable to afford the repairs to his house he needs to make for his son’s safety, plunks down a stack of stolen bills on his coffee table. Lydia’s former partner broke the rules for money, and that didn’t end well. Sammy and Ben joke about tracking the money, how easy it would be to explain away as a mistake, and Ben takes it all in stride as humor. When Brooke shows up to meet him after work, Sammy sends a kid they met earlier in the day over to coerce Ben into buying the kid dinner. After all, he has to impress Brooke to improve his grades.


At the end of the day, two things are still on Cooper’s mind: the guy whose wife left him, and the middle-aged guy (John Billingsley of Star Trek: Enterprise, who also guested on Suits) breaking windows to thunder some excitement into his mundane existence. He finds the slingshot confiscated earlier, sets up empty wine an liquor bottles as targets, and shoots a rock, shattering one of the bottles. He chuckles and has a drink, enjoying the emptiness. But that’s the thing about broken window theory: that downward spiral starts with just a little broken glass.

Stray observations:

  • HSMOtW: It’s the cooked remains in a walk, but the moment gets undercut with every successive scene of Lydia and Ruben discovering the hoax.
  • Seriously, Lydia and Ruben arresting the guy who fakes his own death is hilarious. A few choice lines: “Everyone seems nice, fuckwad.” “Honey, for such a genius, you’re awfully handcuffed.”
  • Another nice bit of humor: Cooper and Lucero talking like game show hosts when guessing whether a domestic dispute suspect has a concealed weapon on him.
  • Every time I see the MTA in something set in Los Angeles, I think of Collateral, Tom Cruise’s last truly great movie.