[12 January 2010]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Hey, NBC says they want a drama at 10. Now they’ve got it!
—Jay Leno, 11 January 2010
I don’t like the fact that if this girl was found in an alley in Brentwood, this would be front-page news.
—Lydia Adams, “Sally in the Alley”
It’s easy to pick on NBC these days. The network is currently tripping over itself to rearrange its late-night and primetime schedule without quite admitting that Leno@10 was a bad decision. The effects of this cost-cutting debacle are many—including weeks of unfunny skits and too many talk show guests spread over too many shows, exposing that really, they’re not so interesting as their promoters need them to be.
One of the early victims of NBC’s decision to slash primetime scripted programming comes back 12 January, when Southland, the much-praised cop show, re-premieres on TNT. It’s not the first time a series has found a new home, of course (see: Buffy, Medium, Scrubs), but Southland has an unusually brief track record. It ran only seven episodes on NBC before being axed, and TNT has supposed this to mean that many viewers never even had a chance to see it. The network has pledged to show all 13 produced episodes, then decide whether to order more.
Seeing the show again, you hope for more. The pilot episode, “Unknown Trouble,” introduces LA cop Ben Sherman (Ben McKenzie) during his first day on the job. His own trauma is evident in scene one, which actually occurs at the end of the day, the rest of the episode taking you back through the hours that led him to be crouched over the body of tattooed gangbanger. Again, you see out how Ben comes to shoot this kid in Classell Park, how his partner John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz) has harasses him, and how the newbie perceives the daily chaos of Los Angeles.
If this chaos isn’t exactly news, being the subject of countless previous cop shows and movies, it is rendered here with some thoughtfulness and complication. Ben’s got an emotional backstory that emerges over the series, having to do with his lawyer-father’s money and his own privileged childhood in Beverly Hills. John touches on it in the first episode, warning “Richie Rich” that if he’s got his number (“You got ‘90210’ written all over you”), so too do the drug addicts and ex-cons on the street. “You do what they teach you in the academy, you will die,” John asserts.
So commences Ben’s rough-and-tumble day, with occasional looks into the experiences of his colleagues, including Detective Sammy Bryant (Shawn Hatosy), whose day—and arc over the season—is shaped by his very difficult relationship with his wife, Tammi (Emily Bergi), pictured frequently during phone calls with her agitated husband. Alone at home and plainly distressed (as well as high and unlikably whiny), Tammi serves as the occasion of Sammy’s emerging investment in Janila (Carla Jeffery). When she witnesses a gang murder in a coming episode, Janila reveals some predictable problems with trust and desire (she’s drawn to a selfish boyfriend, wants to please the nice white officers, and has trouble understanding the danger she’s in, being targeted by gang leader Marta [Lupe Ontiveras, who makes an effectively chilling appearance in later episodes]). Sammy’s efforts to keep Tammi safe are attached to his failures with Tammi, even if he can’t quite see it.
Sammy’s domestic melodrama indicates Southland‘s effort to change up the usual cop show dynamic. To this end, it offers two women cops’ stories over the season. The first is Chickie’s (Arija Bareikis). Her primary focus throughout the season is her dissolving relationship with partner Dewey (C. Thomas Howell, looking unexpectedly haggard and mean). Their essential tension is evident when Ben first meets them, Dewey invested in his seemingly casual misogyny—first complaining about the inability of women to carry weight (literally) on the job and then choking Chickie, only partly in boys-will-be-boys jest. The scene’s most telling instant comes when Ben does an almost right thing, attempting to pull Dewey off her, but Chickie pushes Ben away, opting instead to suffer the not-so-funny choke. In this split second, her face reveals all you need to know about how hard it is to be a girl in this charged environment.
This theme is reinforced in scenes featuring Lydia Adams (Regina King), a tough and refreshingly uncynical detective who’s called on in this first episode to sort out the case of a missing three-year-old. Her immediate understanding of how to handle the distraught mother is opposed to her partner Russell’s (Tom Everett Scott) distraction and lack of nuance. Again and again in the first seven episodes, Lydia is simultaneously a step ahead and a step behind whatever villain she’s confronting, a position that makes her frankly fascinating (and worthy of more screen time than she has). During the seventh episode especially, “Derailed,” she’s drawn into Sammy’s increasingly jumbled attempts to look after Janila. And as Lydia takes up arms against the scary crowd of young men sent to execute the witness, the scene is part slasher movie (she’s in the shadows, on the stairs) and part action flick (she’s very good with her shotgun), a combination that smartly reorganizes the conventions of both genres.
Lydia’s storyline in Southland seems only to begin in these first episodes. As Ben is sidetracked by some explicit soap-operatic business (namely, a romance), she’s increasingly concentrated on what’s usually the boy cops’ business on TV, as her work encroaches on her life (in the small piece you see, she’s looking after her restless mother). Again and again, Lydia’s seeing things her male counterparts miss, whether clues to cases or effects on people involved.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/118870-southland/