The end of E.R brings with it the end of an era for NBC and the days of prime time dominance now seem a distant memory as the network stares down the barrel of a ratings war they are still struggling to secure a foothold in. First off the assembly line of potentially worthy successors is this gritty LA police procedural from Ann Biderman, who cut her teeth as an Emmy Award-winning writer on pioneering cop drama NYPD Blue.
Much like Blue this is a show less interested in neatly wrapped episodic who-dunnits than it is in exploring the dark underbelly of Los Angeles and the men and women that do their best to maintain order within it. Biderman is quick to point out at the beginning of the pilot that there are 9,500 officers patrolling the city, which is home to an estimated 3.9 million people. Perhaps unsurprisingly their patience quickly wears thin.
A stylized montage of mugshots, crime scene, and forensic photographs comprises the credits sequence informing us that we're about to enter a swirling maelstrom of violence, poverty, and racial tension. Law & Order this is not. Chiefly centering on rookie Ben Sherman and his training officer John Cooper, the show wastes no time giving us the dime tour of gang-bangers, meth-heads, hookers, pimps, and crazies, which Cooper refers to as “a front row ticket to the greatest show on Earth.” Of course it's not twenty minutes into the patrol that Sherman, the son of a wealthy Defense Attorney from the Hills, is throwing up on the sidewalk at the ugly side of life.
In an effort to stake a claim to authenticity, perhaps a little too much time is given to cop-show-by-numbers box ticking; we get the inevitable rookie mistake, the sickening this-could-be-your-neighborhood crime (dead kids, always dead kids), the bad food, the bad apples, and the institutional sexism. There is also an eagerness to drive home the shows noble intentions by perhaps painting some of these guys a little too pious, having them make statements like “Every once in a while you get to take a bad guy off the streets for good. That's God's work.”
What Southland does have going for it is a sense of kinetic style and fluidity brought about by some nifty handheld camera work that gives the show an immediacy backed by savvy writing that lends itself very well to walk-and-talk. Much like ABC's new thin blue line series The Unusuals, Southland is a series preoccupied with what makes cops tick. But where The Unusuals employed character quirk as its tool, Southland takes a different approach in sticking to gallows humor and the uglier aspects of the job. There is certainly nothing here we haven't seen before, but the sheer energy on display and the rapid-fire nature of the plotting means you're never quite sure what's coming at you next.
From the determined rookie Sherman with daddy issues and a violent childhood, to Cooper and his pill-popping habit, through Det. Lydia Adams and her inability to let go, to and Det. Sammy Bryant and his crumbling marriage, this precinct is a dysfunctional lot who can barely manage their own problems, to say nothing of ours. Cops it seems are all cops for a reason. Whether its a sense of power, or a sense of purpose, or the opportunity to do the right thing, or to meet vulnerable women, everyone seemingly gets something out of being a cop that they can't get anywhere else.
Right now there is definitely a spot open for a gritty cop show that isn't afraid to highlight the more unpleasant side of human nature most prevalent in those we trust to protect and serve us. The problem lies in the simple truth that ever since Vic Mackey put a bullet in his own team member's head to protect himself at the end of the first episode of The Shield, everything else is just a footnote.
Starring: Ben McKenzie, Michael Kudlitz, Regina King, Shawn Hatosy, Michael McGrady, Kevin Alejandro
Created By: Ann Biderman
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