By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 2, 2010; C01
Every few years, television takes a giant step forward, perhaps partly to compensate for all those other steps backward. One dependable area of improvement is the cop show -- the "CSI" shows represented a major advance in production values, HBO's harrowing "The Wire" was another, and "Hill Street Blues" was revolutionarily grubby and gritty -- and so on, back all the way to "Dragnet," essentially a leap forward from nothing, since there weren't that many cop shows on the air yet.
"Southland," set in Los Angeles, is the next great cop show and the next big step -- a major improvement over the status quo in content and style. Ironically, it's an advancement that was made and then reversed by NBC executives -- who aired the first few episodes last year, then turned peacock-tail and ran, failing to include the series among fall starters. Those lily-livered nincompoops!
NBC brass feared the show was too depressing in its realism. With that kind of antediluvian attitude, the network managed to insult the viewing public just as much as it insulted series creator Ann Biderman and the other talents contributing to "Southland." NBC bosses apparently think shows about fatties shedding pounds are the heaviest fare, ahem, that viewers can take.
Despite the brushoff, "Southland" is back on television as of Tuesday night at 10, having landed safely on cable's TNT. That makes it a step forward for basic cable, too, because "Southland" is a show of high caliber and riveting brilliance, instantly one of the finest hours of TiVo-worthy drama anywhere on the tube.
One of its key qualities is a more reasoned, less worshipful view of the police. "NYPD Blue" certainly had a cast of memorable characters, but its portrayal of cops was mostly idealized, and the cops were sometimes seen as unduly shackled by those pesky rules meant to ensure the "rights of the accused." The show reflected a mood of heightened anxiety about crime brought on by increased urban unrest and the 1992 L.A. riots; even Hollywood liberals were morphing into hard-core law-and-order types.
In "Southland," cops are human beings with flaws as well as virtues; they can be petty, lazy, envious of comrades who get ahead, and even fitfully fearful. One officer -- Michael Cudlitz as John Cooper -- has convinced himself and many of those around him that he's gulping down narcotic painkillers because of a back injury sustained on the job, but he gets his pills not from a doctor but from a shady-looking character who sometimes conducts business in restaurant men's rooms.
Detective Lydia Adams (Regina King, very powerful in the part) is more short-tempered and disgruntled than usual because her partner, Tom Everett Scott as Detective Russell Clarke, has been hospitalized with very scary-looking gunshot wounds to the abdomen. Adams instantly despises the hot-shotty officer assigned to replace Clarke, and she coldly rejects his attempts to be friends -- at least until she sees his performance under pressure.
His motives may not be the shiniest, however; he favors cases that are likely to get him "face time," he says, on the Channel 5 news.
These plotlines and character portraits are interwoven into an exciting, electric tapestry that also incorporates, of course, the stories of the often harrowing cases that the cops encounter. Tuesday's re-premiere is one day in the life of the cops, but next week's episode, also made available for preview, takes place over a number of days -- and includes a jolting scene of one cop's wife, terrifically played by Emily Bergl, having a gross encounter at a Sam's Club-like megastore.
Considerably more explosive, and unnerving, is a scene on Tuesday's episode when the simple act of trying to give an incompetent driver a ticket threatens to become a major neighborhood brawl, the violence escalating in a very believable way as neighbors emerge from their homes.
"Southland" gives a more vivid view than most of its predecessors of the hazards, threats and daunting odds that cops face every day. And because the stress factors are more convincingly detailed, we can understand what makes some of the police officers inherently angry and suspicious and what can put entire blocks of the city on edge.
The mingling of multiple plotlines is, of course, not new, but the dense texture and sense of immediacy are unusually affecting. It really doesn't matter if you missed what happened "previously on 'Southland' "; you're still likely to be pulled right in and swept away by the cast, the characters they play, and the hard-charging style that imposes maximum tension on the proceedings.
At least in the first two episodes, the cases depicted are varied, resonant and borderline fascinating -- among them a shooting attack, in full daylight, on the driver of a sleek silver Bentley; the disappearance of an 82-year-old diabetic who was last seen pruning red flowers in his garden; a stakeout at Platinum Motors, where cars may not be the only luxury items on sale; and the discovery of the kind of ghastly mass murder that it seems can only happen in Los Angeles.
The key character through which we experience much of the mayhem is novice officer Ben Sherman, played by Ben McKenzie, a young actor probably most familiar from his lead role on that murky-quirky Fox series "The O.C.," a glossy soap also set in California's "southland." McKenzie has fortunately matured as an actor, and although the character he plays is implosive rather than demonstrative, he shows considerably greater range than he did before. You can sense that this kid could go either way -- become a great cop or throw up his hands and quit.
The stories are filled with contemporary touches -- cops studying simultaneous footage from four convenience-store surveillance cameras, hoping to spot a clue -- and the action includes such crime-drama staples as a car chase or two, imaginatively shot and edited, and a chase-on-foot through a rail yard, once a film noir staple. "Southland" manages to be plenty noir even with that crazed California sun blaring down, flooding every little corner and cranny with a strangely mocking glow.
The people who made and populate "Southland" know what they're doing, and they do it with such inventive zest that you might think it had never been done before -- that this was the first cop show ever made, instead of just the latest.