Friday, May 1, 2009

"Southland" Is Worthy of the "ER" Time Slot

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

"Southland" (Thursdays at 10 p.m. Eastern) is a sprawling, dark cop show that throws you, verite style, into the day-to-day lives of a handful of Los Angeles police officers and detectives. It features a large cast and eschews simple crime-resolution plot lines in favor of character development and mutli-episodes stories. So it's challenging, and not the most commercial approach to a tried-and-true genre. Why am I laying all this out up front? Simple. The shocking thing about "Southland" is the network it airs on: NBC.

Yes, NBC. The network I have often chided for unimaginative programming, and the network that waved a surrender flag on new-show development by handing its entire 10 p.m. block over to Jay Leno. How did "Southland" end up on the air, then? Well, there is a cut-and-paste element here, since the show is the time slot replacement for "ER," and John Wells is an executive producer on both. Much in the way that "Parks and Recreation" was the network's attempt to fill a Thursday comedy opening by asking the guys behind "The Office" to come up with another half hour of similarly themed programming, it seems that NBC figured they could swap in one John Wells show for another.

The difference is, here it works. Or at least it does for now. With Leno taking over 10 p.m this summer, where does a show like "Southland" go this fall? It is made for the 10 p.m. time block, which is in the FCC's "safe harbor" for programming, as it features bleeped-out cursing, harsh language and no shortage of edgy thrills and violence. This is not a 9 p.m. program. Is this a case of NBC finally figuring it out after its too late?

"Southland" is definitely an ensemble affair, but our entry into the world is rookie police officer Ben Sherman (Ben McKenzie of "The O.C."). When we meet him, he is experiencing his first day on the job, paired with no-nonsense veteran officer John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz), who often hangs out with politically incorrect loud-mouth Billy Dewey (a nearly unrecognizable C. Thomas Howell) and ace officer Chickie Brown (Arija Bareikis of "The American Embassy"). Chickie and Ben have a vibe together that reminded me of the pairing in "Life on Mars" of Gretchen Mol's Annie and Jason O'Mara's Sam, with Chickie acting as a calm guide for the new cop encountering some rough waters. As we learn early on, Ben is not from a working class background, having grown up with money in Beverly Hills. (On an early bust of a teenager in a Ferrari, the driver recognizes Ben and is shocked that he is a cop.) Cooper and Dewey have real reservations about Ben, wondering why someone with his means would choose to be an officer. Chickie is more open to him.

These characters would be enough to staff a show, but they make up only half the cast of "Southland." The detectives in the precinct get equal time. Lydia Adams (Regina King, doing some of the best work of her career) is a smart and authoritative detective who nonetheless takes a heartfelt approach to her work. Over the course of the first two episodes, we see how her job has affected her life, as she cares for her mother and, in a heartbreaking scene, goes to see her ex-husband to confess that she was wrong to think that she didn't want children. Adams is one of the best-written female characters on television, similar in complexity to Chandra Wilson's Dr. Bailey on "Grey's Anatomy" (at least the old Bailey, from the first couple of seasons).

Another strong character is Sammy Bryant (Shawn Hatosy), a young detective who works the gang unit with his partner Nate Moretta (Kevin Alejandro). Bryant feels for the victims of the mayhem he sees, so much so that he pays for a hotel room for a gang-banger's young girlfriend and her grandmother after she is targeted by killers for agreeing to testify in a gang-slaying of an innocent kid. A county official tells him there is no funds in the budget to move them, so after they are shot at, he does it himself. But as good as Bryant is at his job, he has trouble making things work with his somewhat unstable wife (Emily Bergl, wonderfully unhinged). Tom Everett Scott plays an empathetic detective who hasn't had much to do over the first few episodes, and works with "Sal" Salinger (Michael McGrady), a well-meaning but gruff father doing the best he can with his kind-of-out-of-control teen daughter. Salinger isn't getting much help from his wife, who seems to be checked out of the family. He isn't perfect, though, having strayed with the beautiful television news reporter that we see covering the crimes.

Clearly influenced by the movie "Crash," "Southland" tries to follow this huge cast of regulars, as well as others who pop up again and again (like meth addict Barry, who always seems to be near the scene of the crimes the officers work). "Southland" has adopted the unfortunate "Crash" device of coincidences (and the idea that the same small group of cops seem to be everywhere in Los Angeles), and, like the film, the show sometimes stoops to cliche, been-there-done-that devices to make its points (the close up of a rolling ball to signal that the little girl playing with it will meet a bad fate, the sister of the innocent guy shot by the gang-banger ends up next to Sherman in the hospital waiting room and asks him if he's a cop, the tough officer writes positive things in his report about the rookie he had been hard on, etc.).

But if you can look past these missteps, "Southland" is a powerful cop drama. Creator/executive producer/writer Ann Biderman ("NYPD Blue," feature films "Primal Fear" and "Smilla's Sense of Snow"), creates vivid characters and gives them realistic and smart dialogue to work with. I liked when the grizzled Cooper tells the green Sherman that their job is "like driving down the sewer in a glass-bottom boat." Even when things get serious, Biderman's words manage to be affecting without slipping into melodrama or self-importance. When Cooper talks to Sherman after Sherman kills a gang-banger who had shot Dewey, his speech is matter-of-fact and direct, but you still know that he is looking out for his new protege. It is also revealing of what police work does to the men and women on the beat. Cooper says that sometimes, "You get to take a bad guy off the streets for good. Then that, my friend, is God's work." His mixture of heroism with an admitted taste for the thrill is interesting, and it is a theme that runs through many of the characters in the program.

But it is the cast that makes "Southland" tick. King's nuanced performance is fantastic. Hatosy is believable and engaging. McKenzie inhabits the role of the troubled rich kid well. Cudlitz, Howell and McGrady nail the veteran cops without making them into stereotypes. There isn't a bad performance in the bunch.

Make no mistake: "Southland" is by no means a light walk in the park where everything turns out okay. Even "happy" endings can be depressing, as in the second episode when Adams works hard to convince a jaded family services worker to allow a mother to keep her baby boy after her ex abandons him on the street while babysitting. The mother, a recovering junkie and former prostitute, desperately wants to do the right thing, but it is clear that she is one bad break or lapse in judgment from disaster. When she walks away with her son at the end of the hour and thanks Adams for her help, and Adams tells her to "take care," it's clear that she knows, as we do, that even though the mother got what she wanted, it may very well not work out well in the end.

But as heavy as "Southland" is, it also offers a lot of thrills and action. There are bad guys seemingly around every corner, and the gritty, hand-held camera work often throws you into the chaos, not completely sure of what is happening (or will happen), just like the officers and detectives on the scene. The program manages to be entertaining and observant, all at once.

The first episode of "Southland" ends with a series of scenes set to the darkly beautiful "Fake Empire" by the Brooklyn-based band The National. The song is a perfect match for the tone of this show, mixing beauty and pain in a way that works. Any program smart enough to put The National into its debut is okay with me.

"Southland" is a worthy heir to "ER," and it just may be the perfect show to air on Thursday nights at 10 p.m. It's a shame that in a couple of months, that slot will be taken by Jay Leno, and "Southland" might be without a viable home. NBC made its bed. Let's see if it can find a way to lie in it.