The year is still young, but my early choice for most improved returning series of 2012 is TNT’s gritty cop drama “Southland,” currently finishing up its fourth season. I can’t recall another series that made several key changes so far into its run and emerged much better than it had ever been.
Beginning with its first season, which unfortunately was on then hit-repelling NBC, this saga of Los Angeles detectives and street cops was too grim and serious for its own good. That’s not to say that its cast and production values weren’t always first-rate. But in its efforts to be as darkly realistic as possible, it often became too depressing for weekly consumption. At least that’s how I felt about it. Apparently I wasn’t alone; “Southland” has always been somewhat ratings-challenged, so much so that many industry observers didn’t expect it to last as long as it has.
Thank goodness TNT stepped up to save this deserving series, identifying “Southland” as a program worth supporting on its road to near-greatness. (I use that term because it isn’t great in the way of other groundbreaking cop dramas like “Hill Street Blues” and “The Shield,” but it is a genre standout nevertheless.) It has always been and remains unapologetically adult, pushing the limits of language (while beeping the really bad words) and more recently loosening up in the sex and nudity department. It’s not quite FX-bold, but it’s getting there.
This season we’ve seen the trimming of its primary cast, which has served to heighten the contributions of its central players and intensify their characters, specifically Ben McKenzie as Ben Sherman, a rookie cop with a big heart and a hot temper; Regina King as Detective Lydia Adams, who this season is struggling to keep her unexpected pregnancy a secret at work; Michael Cudlitz as veteran cop John Cooper, now recovering from a dependence on painkillers, and especially Shawn Hatosy as Sammy Bryant, an arrogant detective who decided to go back to being a beat cop after his partner was murdered.
In addition to a reduction in the number of characters, the show’s narrative deck has been reshuffled: Sherman is now partnered with Bryant, Cooper is teamed with veteran cop Jessica Tang (Lucy Liu in what maybe the best role of her career to date) and Adams is working with Ruben Robinson (Dorian Missick), a family man and Afghanistan war vet who is now a detective trainee. Happily, C. Thomas Howell still shows up in some episodes as unrelentingly arrogant Officer “Dewey” Dudek.
McKenzie and Hatosy are terrific together, especially when their characters are giving each other a hard time, in the process bringing some much needed humor to the show. Cudlitz and Liu also have great chemistry. Their characters are learning how to work together and help each other navigate their returns to the force after suffering intense personal traumas (his drug addiction, her brutal assault one year earlier). In recent episodes they have suffered fresh crises: In pursuit of a suspect, Liu’s Officer Tang shot a teenager who stupidly pulled a toy gun on her, almost killing the boy, while Cudlitz’s Officer Cooper was savagely assaulted while breaking up a fight.
The Cooper assault, in which a man resisted arrest by biting Cooper and attempting to tear open his throat, was as horrifying as anything I have seen this season on “The Walking Dead,” perhaps because such thingsreally happen.
A recurring theme this season has been the extent to which cell phone cameras and instant Internet postings have created a new set of challenges for police officers. Bryant said it best when he recently complained toSherman, “Every day I gotta watch my back. Guns, knives, people with camera phones hoping we screw up …” In the world of the show, Officers Sherman and Tang are well known for two videos that have gone viral: his capturing the moment when he punched an especially aggressive young woman at a protest; hers documenting the near-fatal beating she suffered on the job a year earlier. In fact, the Tang footage hasactually become an instructional video used by the LAPD to illustrate what not to do when approaching a suspect. Since his video went viral Sherman has been something of a rookie rock star, frequently approached by young women willing to let him punch them (which he doesn’t do) and wanting to have sex with him (a desire he often accommodates).
“Southland” is so chillingly documentary-like it can be disturbing to watch, but that’s the point. This extremely well-done show seemingly seeks to do two things: remind the rest of the country that our inner-city neighborhoods are suffering from inexcusable squalor and often degenerate into war zones; and educate the public about the everyday dangers and challenges faced by police officers, especially those who patrol such areas. I have watched enough episodes of “Cops” during the last twenty-two years to know that much of what “Southland” shows us comes from truth (including the terrible biting attack). That makes it more than just another outstanding drama; it may be the most important scripted series on television.