Riveting. Profane. Tender. Raw. Hilarious. True-to-life. These are just some of the words I would use to describe an episode of Southland.
This drama delves into the daily lives of patrol officers and detectives on the streets of Los Angeles. Originally broadcast on NBC as a replacement for ER, Southland initially focused on how a case would inter-connect with various police departments - the beat cops, the drug and gang squad and homicide while also showing the characters’ home lives. But with a large ensemble cast, the stories were spread too thin and there just seemed to be too much going on.
Don't get me wrong. I enjoyed watching the first season. It is electrifying viewing but what I especially looked forward to were the interactions between Sergeant John Cooper and his rookie partner, Ben Sherman.
Though the show was well-received by critics, there weren't enough viewers and NBC cancelled it before the second season could air. Thankfully, TNT bought the rights to the Southland and the move to cable has turned out to be a boon for the show.
The reduction in the budget and the number of the principal cast members has allowed the writers to focus on what makes Southland interesting - the daily beat. So it is no surprise that seasons 3 – 5 have some of the best episodes I’ve seen in a long time.
We get to see the police officers go about their day, dealing with everything from the mundane to the ridiculous and the down right dangerous. The storytelling is both tight and loose. Some plots never get closure while others take on greater meaning as the season progresses.
The characters are also very complex. Much of the show rests upon the shoulders of Sgt. John Cooper, a gruff and steadfast twenty-year veteran and field training officer who at first glance is your stereotypical cop but who is in fact hiding some major skeletons. Michael Cudlitz brings a great array of emotion in playing Cooper, able to say more in one look that a whole monologue could.
Regina King is as Detective Lydia Adams is such a strong character - she is someone who cares about her job and will go the extra mile to get justice. I wish I had more words to describe just how kick ass she is.
Benjamin McKenzie as Ben Sherman is also a revelation. He sheds his O.C. pretty boy charm for wide-eyed naivete that is transformed by the nature of his work into a hardened, glory-seeking cop. The transformation of Sherman is startling but organic.
Shawn Hatosy as Sammy Bryant a detective in the gang squad who goes back to the police beat after a traumatic event is also brilliant.
C. Thomas Howell as Dewey is probably the most polarizing character on the show. He is loathsome and bigoted but barring shenanigans in season 1, he is the kind of cop you want covering your back when the sh*t hits the fan.
A great deal of what makes Southland work is the camera work. The use of hand-held cameras to lends proper grit, immediacy and intimacy to each scene. This "fly-on-the-wall" quality has your feeling as though you are a part of the action. Each moment, each emotion is amplified and the uncertainty of what could be around the next corner makes for tense viewing.
When taken as a whole Southland is an uncompromising, authentic look into the toll that police work takes on a person - having to deal with the bad guys is tough enough but on the streets of LA it can often seem like everyone is against you.
Normally cancellation is the worst thing that can happen to a tv show but in Southland's case this was the best thing that could have happened to it because it has grown to become one of the finest shows on TV. People compare it to The Shield or Hill Street Blues as the gold standard of police drama. In the near future, other shows will be compared to Southland.