‘Southland’ Offers a Fresh Take on Police Procedurals

Southland became a critical sensation shortly after its premier on NBC in 2009. After a short first season, the network declined to pick up the show for a second season. The cancelation of Southland was akin to that of Homicide: Life on the Streets: A gritty, hard-hitting crime drama was falling to the wayside. And then TNT stepped in. The network produced the next three seasons of the series and launched a fifth season in February 2013. Immensely popular, the second, third and fourth seasons of the show were released on DVD shortly before the premier of the fifth season. The DVD collection is comprised of six separate discs with special features separated by season.

Although Southland can be viewed (and reviewed) as a whole, there is particular critical promise in reviewing the show according to its evolution. The first season of Southland brought haunting images of Dragnet without all the moral righteousness. By the fourth season, Southland had turned into a crime drama that broke all the rules without sacrificing the moral righteousness that Jack Webb envisioned when he created one of the first LAPD-based cop shows in the early ’60s.

Season Two: Growing Strong

With its move to TNT, the creators of Southland gained more freedom to explore the varied facets of policing in L.A. Thanks to an increasingly strong storyline, viewership for the show increased despite a relatively short season of only six episodes. These six episodes are divided between two discs on the DVD collection. The show follows police officers as they work on both daily and long-L.A.sting cases.

A story arch covering a Mexican drug cartel and their L.A. support system runs throughout the season and envelops nearly all the characters in the show, from detectives Sammy Bryant and Nate Moretta to training officer John Cooper and trainee Ben Sherman. Set on the busy, dangerous and sometimes-glamorous streets of L.A., this season of Southland traced the effects of heightened cartel violence in the projects and suburbs alike.

One of the most touching stories in the second season revolved around Sammy and a young boy whom he’s trying to help stay away from the gang life. Called by the street name Casper, the boy doesn’t have much hope for his future. His mom is strung out on drugs and virtually all of his male adult relatives are in a gang. Sammy sees that the kid is intelligent and wants to help him stay off the path that the rest of his family has followed. Sammy takes him to a movie and lunch, where one of the most powerful conversations of the series unfolds.

As he tries to persuade Casper to give up street graffiti and avoid the gang life, the boy makes an astute observation about the reality of life in L.A.. Asked by Sammy to join the police department explorers group, Casper says “So you want me to join your gang.” When Sammy insists that the LAPD isn’t a gang, Casper makes a statement that will haunt viewers no matter their personal opinions about one of the nation’s most notorious policing forces: “The cops are the biggest clicka in L.A.”

When Sammy tells Casper that he has choices, the kid gives an answer that resonates as all too true for many young people in L.A.: “Rich people got choices. But everybody else, you do what you gotta do.” As viewers, we want to believe that the story is going somewhere positive from here. We want to believe that the relationship between gangs and the LAPD isn’t as blurry as it seems to young Casper. Unfortunately, the episode’s ending proves that there are no clear cut lines in policing:

With this adoption of concern for a potential gangbanger, Southland went somewhere that most TV shows have never gone. Instead of presenting corrupt cops working side-by-side with gangsters, the show gives us decent cops who are trying to help at-risk kids—and still fail. This powerful scene is an illustration of what season two is all about: Southland growing strong. The characters, and the show, grow because they face heartbreak, and because this heartbreak breeds redemption.

The special features for season two are the best of the DVD collection. An interactive crime map takes viewers through the real-life neighborhoods and locations where the crimes featured on Southland occur. A “Back the Badge” featurette provides behind-the-scenes commentary from the show’s creators, Christopher Chulack and Ann Biderman. Deleted scenes for almost all of the show’s episodes are also presented on the two DVDs.

Season Three: The Real World

For many viewers, season three is the hardest of all Southland to watch, not because of a lack of creative vision and clarity but because of deep, sustained heartbreak. This season offers the police officers in the show more opportunities to express how they feel about policing, as is illustrated in this speech by Lieutenant Daniel “Sal” Salinger, head of the department’s gang division:

“Code 4”, the fourth episode of the season, came as a shock to many viewers. Ann Biderman and Michael Cudlitz had both hinted that a key character would die during the first half of the season. Many viewers thought that it would be a troubled cop; perhaps Dewey was finally going to pay the piper for his erratic and sometimes offensive behavior. But when the episode opened with Sammy crying silently in the corridor of a morgue, the truth became apparent: Either Nate or Tammy was going to die.

The episode stretched on until the end of the policing day. Sammy and Nate were driving home when someone threw a beer bottle at their car. The pair got out and talked to some gangbangers that they seem to know from working the gang task force. Just when we thought they would go on with their day, the inevitable happened. Nate was attacked. In a brutal street beatdown, he was killed. Only moments before he had flashed an air support helicopter code four, meaning that all was well. Though it’s painful to watch, the episode is worthwhile and is the standout in the third season because of all the conventions it breaks.

Up until “Code 4”, it was generally considered taboo for a favored detective on any police procedural to die in the course of duty. Only disgraced cops, retired cops and dirty cops’ characters had been allowed to die on TV. With the death of Nate Moretta, the creators of Southland sent a clear message that TV police, like real police, aren’t protected by their integrity. The risks of the profession were accentuated in an episode that eschewed an emotional soundtrack for Sammy’s simple, silent cry. The episode also demonstrated that good will between police and the communities with whom they work only goes so far.

Season three explodes forward from this moment with immense power and haunting beauty. Sammy must grapple with his own demons as he tracks the gang member he believes killed Nate. He must deal with failing his own partner and must decide whether or not an eye for an eye is a just approach to Nate’s murder or not. The rest of the featured cops are forced to confront communities that might need but certainly don’t like them. The minimal use of soundtrack music throughout the season goes a long way towards establishing the tone that would come to dominate the series in its fourth season.

Season three brings closure without closing important story lines. At the end of the season, we’re still left to wonder what will become of Sammy. We’re also left to contemplate the fate of John Cooper, who finally checks into a surgery center and rehab to address his back problems and related pain killer addiction. We also wonder if Lydia will be able to work things out with her new partner, Josie Ochoa (Jenny Gago), after a heart-stopping shoot-out and the revelation that Lydia is dating Josie’s son. These trailing storylines work to keep viewers engaged with the series despite a long break between seasons.

Unfortunately, the special features offerings for this season are fairly light with only a few deleted scenes. A featurette on the development of Sammy’s character and the real-life incidents that inspired some of the season’s plot turns would be of value to dedicated fans who stuck with the show despite losing one of their favorite characters.

Season Four: Growing Up

Southland occupied a new position in the world of police procedurals at the beginning of season four. While it had followed in the tradition of Jack Webb’s Dragnet and other L.A.-based police procedurals to some extent every season, it began to depart from more typical formulas to build mature characters who the audience doesn’t always have to like. Lucy Liu made a notable addition to the season as Jessica Tang, paired with a John Cooper who had just come out of rehab for his back (and his painkiller addiction).

Season four was all about growing up. The series grew up and its characters grew up with it. Ben Sherman was paired with Sammy Bryant, who gave up his detective’s badge to work the streets. The pair struggle to feel each other out and get along. Lydia Adams finds a new partner in Ruben Robinson (Dorian Missick). The two forge a successful partnership despite Lydia’s attempts to hide her new pregnancy.

Indeed, season four is a season of decisions for some of our favorite characters. Lydia must decide whether or not she’ll have the baby. She stays on the streets at her own peril, finally coming to terms with how the responsibilities of motherhood might affect her career. John Cooper must decide whether or not he can trust his new partner, with whom he gets along famously until she shoots a kid and he suspects that the shooting is bad. Sammy must decide what to do about Ben, who is spiraling out of control with no signs of stopping.

Of course, season four was also about the faithful viewers of Southland coming to terms with the personal struggles of our favorite characters. In an episode appropriately titled “Identity,” Cooper works hard to save a gay kid from jumping off a building. He gives a memorable speech in which he discloses his own identity and tries to give the boy hope:

As has become a pattern in the show by this point, everything does not work out. Cooper saves the boy in the moment, but he commits suicide by the end of the episode anyhow. Tang and Cooper build a strong relationship with each other, but it can’t weather the intense pressure of deciding what level of discretion we ought to allow police officers. Season four ended with plenty up in the air. As the show enters its fifth season, it will no doubt continue to grow out of the police procedural paradigm and into its own pseudo-genre.

The special features presented for season four consist of a few deleted scenes. This seems skimpy for a show that offered so much rich material for thought with so much time between seasons. Dedicated viewers will likely expect a little more from the special features, especially since TNT worked so diligently to produce “inside the episode” videos with Michael Cudlitz.

Nonetheless, the Southland Complete Seasons 2, 3 and 4 DVD set is a worthwhile investment for fans of the show in particular and the crime television genre as a whole. While the show breaks the conventions long-honored by cop shows, it manages to do so in a way that doesn’t compromise the integrity of characters. Most notably, the show works to constantly blur the lines between what is good and bad, what is right and wrong. As the police technical adviser for the show reminds us in a season two special feature, policing happens in the grey.