“Southland” is one of the best dramas on television. It’s also, unfortunately, a show where I tend to get to each episode very late, for one reason or another, which is why I haven’t weighed in on any episodes from this fifth (and, unfortunately, possibly final) season. But I managed to see this week’s episode only a day late, and I wanted to offer some thoughts on the season in general, coming up just as soon as I tell you I’ve read about the Marquis de Sade…
As I’ve said before, “Southland” is the rare show to be genuinely helped by budget cuts. The NBC version of the show (including the first six episodes to air on TNT after NBC decided not to air them) had too many characters and was trying to tell too many big stories, when its strength was always on small details. As the show had to ditch most of its original cast, it’s had no choice but to play to its strengths, with most episodes just becoming a collection of bizarre, macabre, funny, sad, or harrowing anecdotes about life in the LAPD.(*) The show is brilliant at action – when Sherman’s in a brawl or Cooper’s in a shootout, there’s a visceral sense of danger that’s not generally there on most drama series – and has come up with a good three-tiered structure in which the three partnerships almost never intersect, yet it all feels like part of the same show.
(*) That structure, which I enjoy so much, also makes “Southland” a show that would be very hard to review weekly even if I got to see the episodes sooner.
I was a little worried going into this season that the show would suffer without Lucy Liu, since the Cooper/Tang partnership was the highlight of season 4. Neither of Cooper’s new partners (first the bored military vet, now Anthony Ruvivar’s comedian) have really registered on Liu’s level, but this season is turning out to be less about how Cooper gets along with the other guy in the car than on him coming to grips with the emotional toll of 20 years in uniform. Michael Cudlitz’s scenes with Gerald McRaney have been so fantastic that I can easily envision an early ’90s version of the show with McRaney as the gruff training officer and Cudlitz as the cocky rookie. (And if I had a time machine, making that show exist would be somewhere on my to-do list.) And the scene in last week’s episode where Cooper and Sherman ran into each other in the bar was perfect: each of these guys has things of value to offer the other, but their history is so poisoned that it’s not gonna happen anytime soon.
For that matter, I’m impressed with how convincingly the writers and Ben McKenzie have turned Sherman into the kind of arrogant jerk he would have despised when he was still a boot. Cooper was no prize when they rode together, nor is Sammy now, but watching Ben alienate both men reminds me of that Raylan Givens line: “You run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. You run into assholes all day, you’re the asshole.” There’s some real tension in the Ben/Sammy partnership, where it’s clear at least one of them is going to implode before season’s end, and it’s just a question of which one – or if both will fall apart.
The Lydia part of the show has never been my favorite, despite how good Regina King is in the role, because the nature of her job means the show generally has to tell more straightforward mystery stories, which aren’t as interesting as Cooper talking to a woman crushed under a bus or Sammy bailing out on a pursuit. But this season’s been an improvement over last, in that not every case winds up as a parallel to Lydia’s struggles as a single mom. We still get some of that, like last night’s co-sleep baby death, but we’ve also gotten stories where there’s no obvious tie to Christopher, or ones where he only figures in tangentially, like last week’s confrontation with the serial killer who traded the location of the bodies for hearing the name of Lydia’s son.
Unfortunately, the ratings haven’t been that great this year, and McKenzie and Shawn Hatosy have already taken network pilot gigs, which is often a sign that they know they’ll need a job next season. (Both actors are still under contract to “Southland,” which means they stay if TNT renews the show.) I would happily watch many more years of this version of the show, but it’s also been living on borrowed time for most of its existence. If that time runs out after this season, at least we got these last three seasons, which have served as a riveting weekly reminder that a police procedural doesn’t have to tell its stories in the exact same way every other one on television does.
What does everybody else think? How are you finding this season so far? And are you surprised by Dewey’s continued resiliency?