Southland started its life on the chopping block. Created to anchor NBC’s vaunted Thursday night block (much like Hill Street Blues, ER or Third Watch), the cop show barely survived its first season, then had its second season postponed before being cancelled altogether. TNT picked up Southland, but proceeded to reduce both the budget and the cast.
As the fifth season begins, Southland appears to be stronger for its ordeals. The ensemble is streamlined to the most compelling characters and the direction is crisp. As always, the wide-ranging, never-quite-resolving storylines can make an episode difficult to follow, a strategy that alienates some viewers and endears the show to many critics. As the new season begins, the plot bounces from shootouts in the street and Internal Affairs entrapments to gang arrests and bloody murders, all still delivered with only the most graphic profanity bleeped and only the tightest pixilation obscuring the nudity keep this show near TV MA-rated territory.
All this doesn’t mean the show intends to shock, however, so much as it offers a challenging view of policing and also challenges some police procedural tropes. The revolving set of mini-plots prevents any easy episode recap, and also creates independent storylines for all of the major characters, each simultaneously sympathetic and flawed. Southland offers only brief looks into their off-hours lives, exhibiting no interest in becoming a West coast Blue Bloods. Still, these brief looks provide contexts for what we see when the officers are on the job.
As fans of the show already know, Senior Lead Officer John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz) has been struggling with remaining closeted while dealing with a predictably homophobic work environment. Cooper’s sexuality is confirmed in the opening minutes of the season premiere, “Hats and Bats.” But this is only one aspect of his role here: as a streetwise cop who happens to be gay (as opposed to “that gay cop”), he provides a particular perspective of two events in this episode, a bloody fistfight in a gay bathhouse and a brutal mugging turned homosexual rape.
Cooper’s perspective helps us to see the straight cop in new ways, too. The series is still focused on Ben (Benjamin McKenzie), embarrassed as the season begins by his newfound hero’s status. After he receives a meritorious service award from the LAPD and his image appears on the covers of the new LAPD training manuals, Ben becomes an object of his peers’ scrutiny and hazing. He started the series as a rich kid who became a cop, as he thought, “to make a difference.” In the four seasons since, he’s become increasingly dejected and detached, to the point that in the fifth season, he’s taking phone calls at crime scenes, falling in with a hard drinking, strip-club-hopping crowd of cops (including guest star Chad Michael Murray), and clashing with his partner Sammy (Shawn Hatosy) about their interpretations of what is and is not professional police behavior.
Ben’s inexperience was from the start contrasted with the world-weariness of veterans like Detective Lydia Adams (Regina King). This season, her view of the job, like Ben’s, has shifted, now that she’s mother to a newborn while still investigating murders and rapes. Even as she’s wrestling to find a balance between her two lives, she’s literally wrestling with criminals. Whether contending with a boot to the face or breastfeeding, the ever practical-minded Adams has new responsibilities to consider.
All of these changing lives appear on screen via a new, color-filtered golden tone—but this doesn’t make the episode any less “dark.” Instead, each scene seems to radiate the heat of the Los Angeles summer, a heat that becomes a dramatic story element all its own. The cops suffer in their black uniforms, forced to deal with a community enduring its own sweaty discomfort. At least one of the cops this season has experience with another sort of heat: Cooper’s new partner, Gary Steele (Derek Ray), is an Afghanistan war veteran whose rookie arrogance is already as much of a problem in the field as his PTSD. Steele’s erratic behavior echoes the questions posed in Sammy and Ben’s separate storylines: where is the line for a policeman, between authority and aggression?
Southland‘s dramatic moments don’t always involve the gunfights and chases so familiar from other cop shows. Instead, we see Cooper explaining his 12-hour shift to an angry woman in an ice cream shop, Ben dealing with a friend’s betrayal, and Steele’s angry admonishment of some irresponsible young people. If violence is always a threat, it’s not always the immediate or even most obvious outcome. Southland‘s complicated ethical questions are left similarly unresolved.