It’s hard being a cop in Los Angeles, no doubt. And, judging from its frequent action scenes, it’s hard being a camera operator on Southland. The critically acclaimed series opens its second season on TNT with a few harrowing, jaw-jarring images. A cruiser plunges into a crowd, officers spilling onto the street where they are beset by angry citizens. A few moments later, a couple of men in cowboy hats leap from their car to blast away at a rival gangster, zip pans obscuring their faces and amplifying their assault. Cars race, sirens howl, crashes lead to fiery explosions.
Such handheld mayhem is typical of the show, still granting a rookie’s eye view via Ben Sherman (Ben McKenzie). His experience is partly immediate and partly refracted by fellow patrol officers and a few detectives whose storylines sometimes intersect and whose reactions range from exhaustion to rage to cynicism.
Being the new guy, Ben is so far inclined to react with a mix of surprise, determination, and idealism. The new season has him entering “Phase Three,” wherein he’s deemed responsible and seasoned enough, after six short months, to drive the prowl car. It also means, in Ben’s case, that he’s faced with a predictably difficult decision regarding his older, grievously closeted partner, Cooper (Michael Cudlitz), who’s doing an especially bad job of hiding his painkiller habit. Worried over what to do, Ben stumbles into confrontations he’d rather avoid. As Cooper drives, he peers over at the would-be do-gooder: “The pills I take are for back pain and that passive aggressive bullshit of yours ain’t gonna fly,” Cooper growls. “You got something to say to me, just say it.” The camera cuts to Ben’s face, defeated, then out the window as the car turns, the signal tick-ticking on the soundtrack.
Ben’s worry is framed by a scene that opened this season, wherein officers are treated to an internet reiteration of a painful previous moment — when Chickie (Arija Bareikis) rode along as her furiously alcoholic partner Dewey (C. Thomas Howell) flipped their car. “Rogue L.A. Cop Goes Berserk,” reads the video’s caption, as the roll call sergeant instructs, “We live in a digital age. We are always being recorded.” A brief glimpse of Chickie’s eyes show she’s barely repressing her upset, especially as she learns she’s been assigned a notoriously bad replacement partner — Slug Ferguson (Lenny Schmidt) — as punishment. “You will be on TV,” advises the sergeant.
This fact of life has shaped plots on other cop shows, including The Closer (fond of the corner “REC” light on images of crime scenes) and The Shield, where the cops’ own supposedly secret malfeasances repeatedly emerged in recordings. Southland is now thematizing the various effects of video, used as evidence, weapon, and performance medium. The legacy of Rodney King is not the exposure of Ramparts-style racism, but the exposure of everything, always. Some of it produces lasting effects, especially on individual careers or lives, but mostly it’s fleeting humiliation, now become daily business.
For Detective Rene Cordero (Amaury Nolasco), TV is something else. Replacing Russ (Tom Everett Scott), who remains in the hospital after being shot at the end of last season, Cordero asks to be partnered with Detective Lydia Adams (Regina King), whom he sees as a “star.” He admires not only her great “instinct,” her skill at understanding cases and spotting villains early, but also because she is a photogenic asset to the department, called on to appear at press conferences, even as supporting cast. This has to do with her being a black woman, and “fine,” as Cordero phrases it. She gets that TV is a tool (for a missing person case, a “distraught family member always works best”) and that her own appearance is for show (a point underlined when a presser in which the chief extols the department’s success in “cutting off the head of one of the gangs today” is intercut with a street shootout, the killers in cowboy hats, no less).
Adams gets all this, as she gets most everything about this job, but she shows her annoyance judiciously. She rolls her eyes at Cordero’s acting out, but chooses her battles, focusing on cases and out-performing everyone who underestimates her. In “Butch & Sundance,” the episode airing 9 March, Adams susses out a gruesome triple murder pretty much immediately, though the guys take some time to come around to her thinking and get her doubting herself, briefly, in the process. As Ben and Cooper first come on the scene, guns up and eyes wide, the camera follows them through a series of clean white hallways, as they come on the bodies of a mother and two daughters. It’s the sort of camerawork that aligns you with the horrified observers, peering around corners and glimpsing naked legs. “It’s a real mess,” Cooper sums up for Adams and Cordero, who proceed to instruct their forensics crew deftly.
It’s fascinating to watch Adams work, to see her measure the men around her and pick her battles (it’s not worth feeling outraged at every sexist or racist inflection, as they come up pretty much daily). She remains Southland‘s least standard and most compelling focus, her efforts to stay stoic in the very damaged Russ’ hospital room of a piece with her minute-by-minute evaluations of Cordero. She’s impressed that he ran track in college, as she did, though it’s metaphorically telling — of course — that he’s a sprinter and she ran “distance mostly.”
Much like last season, this one already has Adams and Ben standing in for viewers. Their insights, or their reactions, mold yours. Adams’ judgment of an especially heinous murderer is summed up when she leaves him flustered, protesting and handcuffed, calling back over her shoulder to a couple of uniforms, “I want my cuffs back.” Ben’s position is more plainly sensitive, more plainly a response to his crass TV-consuming peers. When a couple of acquaintances start questioning him about details of the triple-murder scene, wondering about the victims being raped and tortured, he rebuffs them. He has a different sense of what it means to be on TV.