Southland's Season 5 Premiere: The Circus You Probably Aren't Watching (But Should Be)

Southland S05E01: “Hats and Bats”

It’s a little crazy that Southland still exists in 2013. After a decent but brief first season on NBC, the show fell victim to former network president Jeff Zucker’s plan to cut all typical 10pm programming and replace it with the now-immortal Jay Leno Show (seems forever ago, don't it?). Once it was picked up by TNT, the show’s budget was slashed once or twice and the ratings never really popped (they’ve remained steady around 2 million viewers an episode for a few years now).

Yet here we are, with the show beginning its fifth season. The production team turned the negatives into positives, trimming the cast and focusing on a quartet of strong performers. No other show on the air replicates the realities—the horrifying, the stupid, and the mundane—of being a police officer in a major city like Southland. There are barely procedural cases (more like snippets from day-to-day procedure), and the characters rarely get any “wins” as executives like to say. This is a show about being a cop, whatever that might mean on a given day.

When I encourage friends or folks on Twitter to watch the show, I sometimes struggle with a more succinct way to describe how Southland is not like all of the other cop shows out there. Thankfully, I will never have that problem again thanks to a great line from Michael Cudlitz’s John Cooper in last night's Season 5 premiere, "Hats and Hats." When asked by new trainee and former war vet Gary about how he deals with all the horrors and stresses of the job, Cooper calmly said, “It’s a circus.” In this episode alone, Cooper and Gary were called to a low-grade horror-movie-in-progress and a full-blown, violent riot on a major street. Ben and Sammy, the characters played by Ben McKenzie and Shawn Hatosy, attended an awards ceremony, texted while driving, found an old woman in a pool of her own blood, and almost got shot in what ended up being a partially fabricated drug deal perpetuated by Internal Affairs.

Yeah, I’d say "circus" describes this life pretty well.

What’s so great about Southland is that it manages to tell all these tonally distinct stories within in one episode, week after week, without ever overdoing it. The show’s on-the-ground vérité style expertly weaves little pieces of the officers’ days together, oftentimes letting the tension between those in the car simmer until one or both of them can’t take it anymore. In what was really the only “season premiere” signifier of the episode, “Hats and Bats” let us see just a little bit of the character’s personal lives in the morning before a shift. Cooper’s boyfriend wants more from him. Sammy’s drugged-out ex-wife is trying to get more child support and/or full custody of a child that might not even be his. Lydia is miserable with her newborn baby. Ben prepares to be awarded for saving Sammy’s life by getting a new haircut.

While none of these scenes were particularly evocative, they set the stage for another episode’s worth of realistic inner personal drama between characters. Cooper and new guy Gary butted heads because Gary is a little messed up from the war but also doesn’t particularly care to be a cop, something that offends the lifer Cooper. Sammy, on edge because of his ex’s nonsense and a little jealous of Ben’s award, couldn’t help but pop off at any little thing throughout the day. And Lydia, always in dogged pursuit of whatever case she’s working on, pushed even harder because she doesn’t particularly want to go home to mess with her baby or her mother.

This kind of tension isn’t new, for television, or for this series. Although this was Southland’s 34th episode, its characters haven’t changed much. However, the show doesn’t need them to; it backs them into new corners and makes them face slightly different challenges, both of which bring out minor variations out in the characters. This storytelling is simple, but effective. While we always know what part of their lives characters are bringing into the car each shift, we also learn a lot about how the job impacts their lives once they get out of the car as well. McKenzie and Hatosy were tremendous together last season as new partners, and that continued last night, as some of the raw emotions between them have been replaced with more brotherly sparring. Cudlitz and Regina King do great work with whomever their partner is at a given time and in the premiere we saw how their veteran characters deal with—or in Cooper’s case, ignore—big changes in their lives.

And even when the moderate character development isn’t there, the on-the-job set pieces, or the circus-y elements, if you will, make Southland a worthwhile experience on their own. The show captures intensity and danger in shaky cam’d sequences like the mini-riot that Cooper and Gary drove into last night, but also nails the boring nature of a routine arrest in the park when a perp keeps complaining that he has to use the bathroom. Of course, one of those scenes was more traditionally enthralling. But for Southland, both were necessary because both situations are major parts of this job. And it’s because the show gets the innocuous police work scenes so right that it can afford to blow it out with big, intense shootings, riots, and chases and keep the show on the same plane of reality.

Southland earns its action sequences because we know that the story will always come back to the quiet moments, as it did in "Hats and Bats." All four characters ended the episode alone: Cooper’s boyfriend moved out, Lydia couldn’t bring herself to face the baby or her own mother, Ben had to flee the parking lot of a strip club where a dancer had just fired off a few rounds, and Sammy decided to clean up the blood of the old woman who'd almost died earlier in the day. Both the good and the bad news is that they’ll all be back in the car, at the center of the circus, very soon.

If you don’t watch Southland, you should.


NOTES


Chad Michael Murray is doing a mini-arc on the show has a dirtbag cop. I don’t know what I’m more excited for, that CMM and McKenzie are bringing their mid-aughts heart-throb powers together, or the former’s epic cop mustache. I think it’s the mustache. It’s so amazing. He also plays a great scuz, which probably shouldn’t be much of a surprise to any of us.

– I’m happy Lucy Liu is making that network TV money on Elementary, but I kind of miss her on this show. She and Cudlitz worked well together. Cooper’s new partner is okay enough, I guess.

– I appreciate that this episode showed us that cops also text while driving. I respect what you do, officers, but I SEE YOU.

Comments (28)
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I love the show. It is the best police drama on television since Police Story of the 1970's. I'm glad TNT picked the show up after NBC's stupid decision to cancel it.
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So happy the show is back!
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Glad Southland returns stronger as always) I wished they replaced Luci Lui with another female cop (coz it could add more interesting themes to the show - position of a female patrol officer, misogyny within LAPD et cet., i know they didn't explore these themes with Luci Lui but I was always interested in how female cops managed to deal with their cop job. Anyway, episode was great with calm routine moments exploding in blood rush scenes. A plus.
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I just love this show, the episode last season where Lydia's partner leaves her alone to chase after an offender & she gets attacked & she pleads with her attacker that's she's pregnant had me screaming at the TV.
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Forgot to say "Fabulous review and thank you for reviewing this awesome but unrated show"
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I absolutely adore this show--one of my favorite cop shows. Very realistic, gritty, well acted and so much more.

I watched the movie End of Watch and izt reminded me of this show but the show doesn't have the glitz/glam of the movie---the show seems more realistic but elements of it reminds me of End of Watch (without the arc of the mexican mafia and "big scores" for the cops)...maybe it's the grittiness or the unrelated cases the cops respond to---a routine call turns into something unexpected and there are the routine calls....

I also like the external factors (home life) that is touched on in this show. Not only is this one of my favorite cop shows but one of my favorites shows (I have a lot: Breaking Bad, Justified, SOA, GOT and many more but this one is up there amongst those "popular shows")
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Cooper's outlook is soo jaded, his reactions to the most bizarre events cause me to roll my eyes and shake my head, while giggling at the same time. That's talent! Both acting & writing.
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Also, since when has cooper been gay? I thought he was married before? Why are they bringing this up season 5? Lots of questions here.
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I can't believe you haven't seen the clues.

1. Hanging out at a bar with a guy who had been arrested for tutin' in the park.
2. The way he looked at the guy who built the wall in his backyard.
3. Waking up with a dude and shuffling to the bathroom to pop some pills.
4. Explicitly stating the he went to gay bars and saw the friend who later killed himself.
5. Wu Tang, formerly known as Pootie Tang, requested him as a partner because she knew he wouldn't try to feel her up in the car. Yes, his co-workers know.

His ex-wife nurse gave him pills from the hospital probably hoping he would put a baby inside her but he took the pills and said no.
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And at least twenty more. He's been gay since about quarter-way or halfway through season 1? Or thereabouts?
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Yea, I honestly missed that one.
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its been known since early in season one that hes gay, his co-workers don't know
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Cooper has been known to be gay ever since the last five minutes of the pilot episode when he decompresses at the end of the day in a gay bar. It's also made fairly clear that most of his colleagues do know, but they just don't care because he's Good Police.
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It's never been made clear one way or the other that his co-workers know - Dudek makes comments all the time, but he makes those sorts of comments towards EVERYONE, so you can't really lend them any particular credence.
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Yes I do miss Lucy Lui on this show.
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I'm not going to lie the only reason I decided to watch Southland when it first started was because of Ben McKenzie (I'm an OC fan from way back lol) and I'm so glad I did. I've never been a fan of cop shows but I love Southland. The acting is incredible and the way the shows builds tension never fails to have me glued to the screen. If you're not watching this show, you should start ASAP.
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Best cop show on TV currently, perhaps ever. This followed what The Shield did so well and expanded on it. Which was to take a core set of excellent characters and just let their life play or spin out around them.
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Cletus Van Damme endorses this comment.
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What happened to this show is what I hoped for, in vain, with Terriers. I watched the first season very impressed and then heard what NBC was doing and was completely heart broken. TNT picked it up and it's been better and better each season.

Certainly worth watching. If I were to list by top 5 of TV shows currently on TV this is definitely on it.
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What attracts me to Southland is that every episode ties my stomach in knots. A lot of shows focus on dialogue and get too chatty, but Southland takes the art of silence, feet pounding the pavement, and short breathing to another level.

Nate getting brained still has to be one of my top Holy Sh!t moments in tv. Glad its back for another season.
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Best cop drama on TV. None of that procedural bad guy of the week crap that every single show on CBS is doing. I think this might be the only show on TNT I watch. I try and tell people how awesome it is but most of them never seem have never heard of it.
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While I enjoyed having a much larger cadre of detectives in the first season on NBC, props (whatever they are) to TNT for allowing much more profanity, which I think really lends a lot more authenticity to the cops and perps alike. It's not used gratuitously, but just enough to make it feel all the more real.

This is the only show I've ever seen on which Lucy Liu seems to have been able to display actual talent. Her emotions typically run the gamut from A to A on-screen but she really came across as a much better actress on her one season as a regular. Kudos to the show for letting us see that. Sadly, she's now back to her typical robotic acting on "Elementary" and more's the pity for that.

Folks, TNT turns out a lot of schlock that isn't deserving of your attention at all. This show is now and always has been a rare exception to that rule. As the article said, you really should be watching this.
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Glad Southland is getting its due. It is one of the best shows on television and the only thing to rival The Shield when it comes to police dramas. The shootout a few seasons back between the bottle throwing gang members that esculated into chaos and the officers death was one of the most intense scenes on televison since the Hank shookout in the parking lot on Breaking bad with the thugster-twins.
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Iam just glad it's back, season 5 is up to a great start.
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Great review. It is amazing the show has made it this long, but I'm not going to question it, just savor it. I too could never figure out how to describe Southland to other people. There are a billion cop shows out there, but this is (in my mind) the purest. Just think how the plot with the young guy who was raped would have gone on any other show. There's no preaching here, just laying out what goes on and how it affects people. Also, as ReeNee3120 points out so well, Southland lives and dies by its actors, not by crowd-pleasing, tidy cases-of-the-week. There's nothing else on TV like Southland.
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I was so excited when TnT saved this show, NBC was an idiot to let it go (shocker). The drama, it's so gritty and hard to watch and yet that's what sets this show apart. They don't magically "solve" every case, there's no gimmicks or extra special last minute evidence to save the day. And no bullshit forensics like that b.s CSI shit. It's real, it's dark, and the performances are on point. Southland is the best cop show on TV, bar none.
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I've been watching this show since day one and it really is great. More people should be watching this and not CSI crap.
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Totally agree. I to haven't missed an episode. This show is so underrated but it is one of the best out there.
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