Review: ‘Southland’ – ‘Chaos’

A review of last night’s “Southland” coming up just as soon as I need a haircut…

“Chaos” played with a fairly old cop show trope with the story of cops being taken hostage, under threat of death at any moment. (Years before he was a mogul, Dick Wolf was a young-ish “Hill Street Blues” writer who did this exact story with Norm Buntz.) I’ve seen it done dozens of times, at a minimum.

I can’t say I’ve ever seen it done remotely as well as “Chaos,” though.

The episode’s genius – aside from the fact that it featured Michael Cudlitz, who’s playing at an entirely different level this year(*), emotionally and physically – was that it worked within the aesthetic “Southland” uses best: everything feels specific, but also random, creating the illusion even in a very heightened circumstance like this that it could be something really happening to a pair of cops.

(*) I haven’t been reviewing the show most weeks, but attention must be paid to the recent episode where Cooper and his old FTO broke down while discussing the toll the job has taken on both of them. I watched that final scene with my mouth agape at how raw and honest and brilliant both Cudlitz and Gerald McRaney were being. Interestingly, Cudlitz is the only one of the show’s four leads who hasn’t already signed on for a new pilot, and I wonder if it’s less out of loyalty to a show unlikely to come back than it is trepidation at having to take a part that won’t be remotely as rich as this one. Cudlitz has never been a bad actor in the past, but he’s also never had a role that came close to this one in terms of what it’s allowed him to do. I imagine it would be a tough comedown to have to go back to playing the wisecracking fifth banana in someone else’s show after this.   

Given the earlier set-up with Cooper coming out to Lucero(**) and the ugly exchange outside the gay bar, this could have very easily turned into a trite story of the partners bonding under threat of death, possibly concluding with one of them proving his worth to the other by finding an improbable way out of their situation. Or we could have gotten the payoff to two years of Cooper/Sherman separation by having Ben and Dewey somehow ride to the rescue just in the nick of time. Instead, it’s just an ordeal; Cooper makes the bad decision to let the junkie get behind him (after Lucero gets cold-cocked during a too-casual vehicle search), and from that point on, their fates are entirely in the hands of two addicts whose decisions seem made entirely at random. There’s no time for tearful confessions of loyalty between the partners, nor for superheroics. Lucero is the one who gets tortured only because he happens to be closer to their two captors when they begin panicking about the idea of a hidden police tracking device. Cooper survives only because they needed someone to dig the grave, and then because the junkies were in too big a hurry to properly execute him. The utter brutality and confusion of the situation made it seem far more brutal and terrifying than if it had followed more traditional beats. There’s no hero here. The Cooper lying against the gas station wall, wracked with pain and guilt and just struggling to breathe is just a survivor, and one who’s going to be haunted by what happened here for a long, long time.

(**) It’s been a few years now since Cooper and Sherman rode together, so I can’t remember if John ever gave Ben the same information. Dewey seems to know, but given how private Cooper is, and how much contempt he has for his boots, my guess is that he doesn’t bring it up unless absolutely forced to by a homophobic loudmouth like Lucero.

The ordeal was so gripping that I almost wish the episode hadn’t kept cutting away from it to deal with the other two partnerships – or, at least, had only done so for scenes dealing with this story. Lydia and Reuben investigating the disappearance worked just fine, with Lydia as a surrogate for the horror all the cops were feeling the more they learned about the situation. But the ongoing Ben/Sammy drama felt like a distraction. (And, in general, each of those guys’ various quests for vengeance against local gangbangers is one of the few areas where “Southland” still feels formulaic, even with the fine performances by McKenzie and Hatosy.) I was relieved when Ben finally ran into Dewey, because I really didn’t care about anything but what was happening to Cooper and how others were reacting to it.

Overall, though, this was an amazing hour of television. The more “Southland” has simplified its storytelling, the more visceral its emotions feel, and “Chaos” was a perfect example of that. If next week really is the last episode of the series (and TNT hasn’t said anything yet, but the pilot casting and the ratings suggest everyone has read the writing on the wall), I will miss it dearly. But I’ll also be glad the show got this second life away from NBC to figure out exactly what it was, and how great it could be.

What did everybody else think?