The premiere episode of Southland is familiar. The set-up comes straight from Training Day: a young cop rides the streets of L.A. with his seen-it-all, know-it-all, smash-you-in-the-face-with-the-reality-of-it-all trainer, John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz). The end-to-beginning arc recalls Crash, as does the L.A. location work, and the inclusion, of a youngish detective, Lydia (Regina King), taking care of an aging parent. Plunging the audience into a swirl of indistinct dialogue and multi-person scenes recalls Hill Street Blues, while the edgy editing and moving camera conjure up NYPD Blue.
Even when plot and characters do not invoke specific landmarks in the cop show genre, they seem more at home in the past than the present. The patrol cops are sexist, xenophobic, and given to pugnacious reverse classism, while the detectives sport nice suits and cynicism about marriage. And the crimes that drive the episode atavistically pit a Caucasian “us” (accentuated by the token African American cop) versus a non-white, migrant “them.” Hispanic gang members, tattooed and high, commit one crime in this episode, and Middle Eastern immigrant commits the other.
Despite this uninspired story outline, the series begins with one of the best-directed primetime drama opening sequences of recent years. Christopher Chulack melds mobile framing and lighting in a wordless vision of chaos and death, glimpsed in between the jarring flashes of light from higgedly-piggedly squad cars, a hovering helicopter, and crime story paparazzi. A nosy, handheld camera pushes through the jumble of cops and bystanders with all the brutality of a tyro journalist smelling blood. And Chulak capitalizes on the immediacy of his camera-as-witness with visual effects that only look accidental. At one moment, the frame is nearly bleached white; at another, the image is obscured in grainy black and white. When a grey-faced Ben stoops next to a corpse, the camera hangs with him, just inches off the ground, waiting to see what happens next, while the crowd in the background writhes just out of focus.
If visuals are not mundane in Southland, neither is the dialogue, especially the incidental repartee that oils coexistence in a high-stress profession. When Ben fails to laugh at the prospect of affixing a photograph of eviscerated gonads to a crime report, Officer Cooper (Michael Cuitz) quips, “What? Are you Canadian or something?” Later, after Ben vomits at the sight of a days-dead corpse, Cooper, who has discovered that his rookie hails from 90210, narrates, “Tori Spelling just threw up over his brand new, patent leather Mary Janes.” That line alone is almost enough to redeem a sequence whose punch line of an undiscovered corpse nibbled by hungry dogs is signaled from the very first faint bark.
The series effectively combines chopped up dialogue and fast cuts during a scene in the detectives’ squad room. Here the layers of fragmentation make it unclear who might prove a major player in Southland or who’s window-dressing: the exchanges are so elliptical that the viewer has no idea what’s key and what’s throwaway. Of course, destablising your audience can go too far. The underused Tom Everett Scott (as Detective Russell Clarke) plays an almost inaudible scene in a coffee shop with the distraught mother of a missing girl: throughout, he looks as puzzled as we feel.
The question that remains at the end of Southland‘s pilot is whether its sum will become more than these parts. While creator Ann Biderman promises a major gay character among the regular ensemble, expanding the diversity of the characters does not necessarily enhance the show’s quality. It is a cop show, after all.
And this means it falls into a category of entertainment that has, over the past 20 years, made explicit violence, mutilated corpses, and stomach-churning autopsies staples of primetime. To stand out, Southland needs a different focus. It might yet find it. When Lydia finds the body of the missing girl, the camera doesn’t zoom in on the corpse or the killer. Instead, it frames the weeping, middle-aged villain as he kneels on his kitchen floor, while his wife embraces him, muttering over and over, “What have you done?” This, at least, is jarring.