Season finale review: ‘Southland’ – ‘Thursday’

Senior Television Writer
03.21.12 37 Comments

A review of the “Southland” fourth season finale coming up just as soon as I sing a little Nicki Minaj for you…

As I’ve talked about in some previous reviews, this was the second season produced for TNT, and the first one where the show was no longer trying to service the NBC version of itself. All the non-core characters were dropped, and we just focused on these three partnerships, with very minimal interaction between them. And, as a result, this was the strongest season the show has had to date, and the one that’s come closest to living up to the promise I could see back in the bigger budget NBC days.

Still, the season wasn’t perfect, and neither was the finale.

Regina King remains a tremendous asset to the show, but the insistence on turning every one of her cases this season into a teaching moment about parenthood got old in a hurry. And it sucked all the emotion out of what should have been a few tremendous scenes in this one, starting with Lydia’s trip to take the statement of the horribly-burned child. That should have been a great sequence – especially since the show wisely didn’t show us the interview itself, which would have felt too maudlin and manipulative – but by that point I was just tired of Lydia’s every moment of the season being about her pregnancy.

And Ben going off the reservation to murder the pimp (using one of the two pistols we saw him cleaning in his garage early in the episode as a drop gun) felt, like much of this season’s Ben/Sammy arc, like it went too far and too fast. I’m not saying Ben would never become that guy, but it feels as if the writers knew they wanted to open the season with him being his usual squeaky-clean, self-righteous self who had no patience for the Lou Diamond Phillipses of the department, and close it with him crossing the line and teaming up with Phillips in the bargain – and that we were going to get to that point come hell or high water.

The other problem with that story was, simply, that it was too much of a story. For my money, plot has never been this show’s strong suit. It works incredibly well as a series of anecdotes about what life is like in the LAPD, particularly for those who wear a uniform and drive a patrol car. (It’s not a coincidence that the best Lydia episode of the season was the one where she had to spend a shift back in uniform.) When it’s just incident after incident, it feels real, and raw, and funny sometimes and moving at others. When it tries to deal with mystery (Lydia’s cases) or story arcs, it becomes just another generic cop show. (I swear, a lot of beats from the Ben arc this season felt like they could have been on “Hill Street Blues” 30 years ago.)

The one arc that worked all season, and continued to in the finale, was the rise and fall of the Cooper/Tang partnership. There was a definite plot there, at least in and around her shooting the kid with the toy gun, but it was mainly a character piece. Here were two cops who’ve just returned from the Island of Misfit Toys, each trying to regain the stature and confidence and poise they lost. And for a while, everything went swimmingly. But it turns out that while Cooper has made his way back from his pill addiction, Tang is still too scarred from the beating she took, and it makes her trigger-happy sometimes and jumpy other times. She’s not the worst cop in the world, and could do very well as a shift supervisor, but her instincts on the street, particularly when violence is involved, appear irreparably damaged. It’s a subtler problem than many cop shows would deal with, but “Southland” illustrated it beautifully throughout thanks to the great work by Michael Cudlitz and Lucy Liu, and I liked that neither the show nor Cooper let Tang off the hook because we had liked her so much earlier. She screwed up, she covered it up, and then she created even more problems(*) because she didn’t recognize that she shouldn’t be on the street.

(*) During another outstanding action sequence on a show that’s made them into a specialty.

“Southland” remains on the bubble for renewal. Once upon a time, I wouldn’t have minded if it went away forever. But I feel like with the Tang/Cooper scenes, and with some of the Ben/Sammy material from earlier in the season, the show has really found itself. I’d like to see it come back for a fifth season, and preferably one where the show finds a way to play even more to its strengths.

What did everybody else think?

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