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.
– 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.