A Second Look at Southland

The big winners in all the contretemps over Jay and Conan and primetime on NBC may just well be Southland fans and TNT.

Caught up in NBC’s revamping of primetime when Leno moved to 10 pm, the gritty L.A. police drama (you have to use the term gritty at least once in any Southland story) was orphaned by the network. That, despite the fact, that six additional episodes were already in the can. The question is how gritty (there’s that word again!) can you really get on network television? Even co-star Ben McKenzie, who plays rookie cop Officer Ben Sherman, has said that Southland’s cast and creators will now be able to make the show as it was meant to be.

I’m certainly one of the beneficiaries of Southland’s resurrection. You know how it goes sometimes, you want to catch a new show, somehow miss the first couple episodes, and then it’s wait for the DVD. Now TNT is showing enhanced versions of the seven episodes that already aired on NBC, as well the additional unseen six. So for many of us, it’s catch-up time. Or for original fans, a chance to finally see a fuller vision of the show, thanks to additional footage and cable’s more grown-up standards.

So after watching last night's premiere, I gotta say that I was hooked pretty quickly. That opening wail of blues harp certainly set the tone. The credits featuring vintage L.A. crime scene photography tied the show to everything from Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy to Jack Webb. (Speaking of which, Southland is not a sanitized, Dragnet version of L.A.—not with the lights, sirens, and trickling blood of that opening sequence.) As Sherman’s veteran partner, Officer John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz) summed it all up with a laconic delivery that Chandler could appreciate: “The night had not gone well.”

The relationship between Sherman and Cooper was at the heart of the show. After Training Day, I can’t say that’s necessarily a new set-up, but one that, given the quality of the show’s writing, should work. Sure, the Tori Spelling putdowns and the Beverly Hills references piled up. But the Richie Rich mention not only captured Sherman’s background, it could also be appreciated as a parallel-universe reference to Rick Schroder—he of both Silver Spoons and NYPD Blue.

Like any first episode, there were a lot of characters to introduce and stories to lay out. Some were more clear than others, and Regina King’s (always good to see her) Detective Lydia Adams looked as if she would serve as a moral center in the morally ambiguous and dangerous world that these cops operate in. As Cooper described the job to Sherman, it was “like driving through the sewer in a glass-bottomed boat.” Last night’s show had it all including a child kidnapping and murder and a gang shooting known as an ABG. Anybody goes.

As an aficionado of L.A. television and film locations, I have to say the show made effective use of a wide variety of locales and captured the big boulevards, neighborhood enclaves, and darker corners that most television shows either miss or avoid. Like the cops, we’re getting what Cooper called, “a front row seat to the greatest show on Earth.” This is not Entourage's Southern California, but a far more menacing one. You can’t call a series Southland without showing the real thing. Or be gritty without a little grit.

What did you think of the episode? Do you think the show will fare better on TNT?

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