Notes on Southland

January 31, 2012

The low-rated ensemble police drama Southland became a cause célèbre a few years ago, when it got canceled by an impatient NBC and then unexpectedly rescued by TNT (a basic cable station that typically wouldn’t shell out for such an expensive undertaking).  I have rooted for it too, but its underdog victory isn’t reason enough to declare Southland the new standard-bearer for quality television.

Southland was created by Ann Biderman, a screenwriter (Primal Fear) who worked briefly on NYPD Blue, but it is produced under the umbrella of TV mogul John Wells.  Southland bears a closer resemblance to bustling Wellsian professional dramas like ER and Third Watch than to squadroom ensembles like Hill Street Blues or NYPD Blue.  Many of the creative staff are veterans of one or both of the Wells shows: writers Dee Johnson and Angela Amato Velez, directors Christopher Chulack, Nelson McCormick, and Felix Alcala; actress Lisa Vidal; costume designer Lyn Paolo; and so on.

(Southland also carries some of the DNA of Adam-12 and Dragnet.  A storyline in “Two Gangs,” in which two squad-car partners spend their shift answering trivial “garbage calls,” plays exactly like one of the more quotidian Friday-Gannon episodes.  Like the Jack Webb shows, Southland is resolutely pro-police.  Its LAPD contains flawed cops – such as the spectacularly alcoholic Dewey, played with gusto by C. Thomas Howell – but no corrupt ones.  Positioned on the cultural timeline after Bad Lieutenant, James Ellroy, The Wire, and Training Day, not to mention the pepper-spraying thug brigades that assaulted those unresisting OWS protesters last year, Southland comes across as somewhat naïve.)

Biderman is the showrunner, but ironically Southland’s chief holdover from NYPD Blue is not in the writing; it’s the formal device of the handheld camera, which was novel in 1993 and has become, twenty years later, one of television’s most punishing clichés.  Speaking of clichés: Southland turns the shakycam up to eleven.  It sounds ridiculous, but Southland actually reminds me a little of late Godard (from Eloge de l’amour on), in that many of the important beats seem to take place just outside the frame or in between cuts.  Most shows that use shakycam these days are just mindlessly following the fad, but Southland is arty.  Look at the shot in “Westside” where Regina King lurks totally out of focus in the background for three or four seconds, an eternity in television time, before walking forward into a woozy close-up.  The immediacy, the lurching urgency, of handheld works fine in action sequences, like the exciting car and foot pursuit that concludes “Westside.”  But Southland never anchors the camera, and in the intimate scenes all that unnecessary, exhausting motion becomes a daunting barrier between the actors and the audience.

The other key problem is one of length: Southland is fifty minutes of show in a forty-one minute bag.  It also tops out at ten episodes per season instead of the twenty-two (or more) that a successful network show would get.  Wells and company haven’t scaled their ambitions to match; they’ve crammed Southland with more characters and story than they can service in the time allotted.  The result is that most of the many people who fill the world of Southland remain poorly defined even after several seasons, and instead of fixing the problem, the producers have resorted to writing out some good actors and starting over again with new faces (Lucy Liu, seriously?) who may not exactly be an improvement.  I’m thirteen episodes in, and still trying to figure out what the hell is the problem between emotional detective Sammy Bryant (Shawn Hatosy) and his flaky wife (Emily Bergl), or what kind of cop Bryant is supposed to be; or why the aloof detective Russell Clarke (Tom Everett Scott) acts so sullen and passive around his protective partner (King).  Too late now: Scott was gone before season three, and while Russell’s exeunt had some shadings I hadn’t seen in a cop show before, it didn’t matter much, because there was no character there in the first place.  In its subject matter and its keen eye for the look and feel of Los Angeles, Southland resembles Boomtown, a fine metropolitan drama that didn’t find a cable savior to save it from a premature death, also at NBC’s hands, a decade ago.  Boomtown struggled with its sprawl too – it also axed some good characters too soon – but I wish Southland would emulate the earlier show’s habit of zeroing in on a single figure for a whole episode, whenever that character’s storyline came to a head.

The three characters that do work on Southland are all iterations of familiar cop show archetypes.  The actors who play them are terrific, but the archetypes give them a big advantage over the rest of the cast, a head start in connecting with the audience on a show where everyone is vying desperately for screen time.  Ben Sherman (Benjamin McKenzie) is the first-day rookie.  John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz) is his asshole training officer, a Sipowiczian saint whose crosses to bear include a painkiller addiction and closeted homosexuality.  Chickie Brown (Arija Bareikis) is the outnumbered female beat cop, who’s alternately resigned to and resentful of her colleagues’ casual sexism.

Maybe Southland should have dumped everyone else and focused on this trio, or just on Ben Sherman.  ER, if only by virtue of cast attrition, took shape as a bildungsroman that followed John Carter (Noah Wyle), a med student in the pilot and a seasoned doctor by the end, on a journey to the moral heart of the show.  Sherman is a comparable figure on Southland (with Cooper analogous to Anthony Edwards’s unflappable Mark Greene, and Chickie the equivalent of Julianna Margulies’s Carol Hathaway).  McKenzie, who played the two-fisted street kid adopted into the wealthy candyland of The O.C., has a wonderfully open quality, similar to Wyle’s.  He’s always engaged in his environment, loose, unpredictable, wide-eyed but sharp.  McKenzie is a natural star, a performer built to the intimate scale of television, like David Janssen or David Morse.  But he’s wasted on Southland, a show with no stars in its universe.

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