TV Preview: Hank Stuever on the Cop Drama 'Southland,' Debuting on NBC
Thursday, April 9, 2009
A somber paragraph of type shown at the beginning of "Southland" informs us that although Los Angeles sprawls over 500 square miles, "there are only 9,800 police officers" to patrol it.
Only? Within minutes comes the sinking feeling that we are going to meet all of them in a single hour of this premiere. (Worse, we've met so many of them before, either as cliche crime drama characters or, more often, as actors from previously deep-sixed series. Keep your IMDb.com search page ready for the game of "Isn't that . . . ?")
Produced by John Wells (and filling the 10 p.m. vacancy left by the end of his stalwart "ER"), "Southland" ostensibly revolves around rookie L.A. officer Ben Sherman, played in a stone-faced way by Ben McKenzie from "The O.C." Yet the pilot episode is laden with so much setup for countless other characters that the network should have supplied a flow chart.
The show clearly has more than an admiring envy for the tone and scope of "The Wire," which over several seasons wove an epic tale of Baltimore cops, drug dealers and everyone in between. But that was "The Wire," which had the benefit of a very few but very loyal paying viewers, the freedom of R-rated verisimilitude and no obligation to beat the clock to a commercial break.
"Southland," on the other hand, is obligated by the storytelling conventions and Nielsen demands of prime time. It follows Wells's template of network success, established by "ER" and "West Wing," in which a lot of fast-talking protagonists assemble themselves around multiple frenetic plotlines (usually three) that are each gripping, startling and/or tragic. (Officer Sherman shoots an armed gang-banger on his very first day.)
It's difficult to know which of these people deserve our closest attention -- which is precious, given the trendy, herky-jerky way "Southland" is cut together. Is it Detective Lydia Adams (an engaging Regina King), determined to find a missing girl? Is it the menacing but strangely engaging Officer John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz), who verbally harasses rookie Sherman ad nauseam about the reality of life on the streets? Is it the blond female officer (she was on "Crossing Jordan") who wants to transfer to SWAT? Is it . . . any of the other 10 or 20 characters? Lieutenant Who? Sergeant What? They come in, read their lines, they exit. Then this other guy, the chauvinist pig officer, gets shot! (Was he important?)
Of course, this is the problem with any series launch. Slow and steady wins the race, but there's no such thing anymore as slow. "Southland" wraps up (already?) with its untethered characters returning to their homes (or their gay bars, in closeted Officer Cooper's case), en montage, after a grueling and gruesome day, while a doleful ballad plays in the background. (Just like "ER"!)
There's a heavy dose of piety woven in as "Southland" forgets its "Wire"-iness and instead gets "Crash"-y. The mayhem of vast and furious Los Angeles (and by the way, who calls it "the Southland" anyhow -- besides headline writers at the old L.A. Times?) is again called upon to symbolize the random gestalt that binds us. Hollywood writers love to plumb this notion, that deeper cultural and racial understanding exists south of the Santa Monica Freeway, "Can't we all get along," etc. It feels very 1992.
There's nothing to Hulu here, folks. You get a millisecond to establish a cop drama now, and then you're gone, and that's no way to tell this sort of story. "Southland" -- and every other cop show started in the past few years -- needs to slow down. Complexity is wonderful, but you have to start with one thing, not 100. "ER" was about an ER. "The West Wing" was about the West Wing. Even "Lost," for all its convolutions, was initially about some people who were in a plane that crashed, and that was enough to go on. "Southland" is about . . . NBC needing a 10 o'clock drama. In other words, it's a terrible time for Officer Sherman to join the force, but he's trying so hard, you almost have to wish him luck.
Southland (one hour) debuts tonight at 10 on Channel 4.