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'Southland': No Better Cops
February 15, 2011  | By Eric Gould

Forget the high-concept procedural grand dames or the bullets a-flyin' action shows. Southland has everything you need. This Tuesday night TNT hour (10 p.m. ET) stays down to earth, delivering an absorbing cop show worth caring about.

It's a character-driven drama that doesn't tie everything up with a pretty bow. A strong cast of actors works with scripts that have the rhythm and beat of everyday language. They're ordinary people like us, facing extraordinary circumstances -- the difficult choices that must be made between the letter of the law and the application of it on the streets of south L.A., where the gangs seem to be winning.

Southland is shot hand-held, giving it an artful, documentary-like style where the camera is never level and almost always moving. That makes the show a rightful heir to Hill Street Blues (NBC, 1981-87), which pioneered many of these techniques -- the hand-held look, blurry focusing left in, and characters' personal lives as upfront in the drama as crime itself. The series creator is Ann Biderman, an early writer for ABC's 1993-2005 hit NYPD Blue, which amplified the tone and technique of Hill Street by dialing them up to 11.

nypd-al-pacino-jack-warden.jpgThere's an even earlier antecedent: N.Y.P.D. (ABC, 1967-69) was shot with a grainy, gritty effect, as Jack Warden's Lt. Mike Haines trudged through the concrete metropolis, shoulders slumped in an overcoat, sometimes missing the bad guys, sometimes lingering in the bar too long. (N.Y.P.D. merits consideration as the legitimate granddaddy of police dramas rooted in the real streets. Actually filmed in the city, it tapped guest stars like a pre-fame Al Pacino, pictured right with Warden.)

As with Lt. Haines, Southland takes us walking onto murder scenes with the detectives, seeing it over their shoulders, the same moment they do.

In the Feb. 1 episode "The Winds" (available to Comcast customers On Demand and online at Xfinity; check other cable systems, or watch full episodes at TNT's Southland page) had veteran street cop John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz) facing his past, present and future, in a rush of events over two days that challenged even his Dirty Harry persona.

We saw Cooper, a tough and sometimes obnoxious cop who straddles the gray lines of his job to dispense his own brand of street justice, having to testify against his father in a stirring speech at the father's parole hearing. Now completely at the end of his ability to cope with an addiction to pain killers that may endanger the job he loves, and the pension he needs, Cooper is reduced to eating pills he dropped, out of the dirt.


Southland is in its third year, and second on TNT. The cable channel picked it up from NBC, whose well-documented recent blunders include canceling it after one year with six shows in the can. (Earlier seasons are available on DVD here.)

Luckily, Southland has been able to retain an impressive cast, including Regina King (Jerry Maguire), Shawn Hatosy (Alpha Dog) and Arija Bareikis (The Myth of Fingerprints). And its group of writers, led by Biderman, who can make even boilerplate crime scenarios feel fresh.

They're as heart-breaking as any you will find, in south L.A., or any other city.

Like yours.




essequemodeia said:

I will never comprehend the capacity for blunders that NBC regularly exhibits. I grew up with NBC being my "home team" network, now it's just a red-headed stepchild. Zucker's gone and it still isn't improving.

Comment posted on February 18, 2011 1:51 PM

saul rosenberg said:

this is top-notch from start to finish. here's to hoping a fourth season is in the works!

Comment posted on February 25, 2011 3:14 PM
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