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.

The Writers Guild of America has confirmed the death of prolific television writer Preston Wood on January 13.  Wood was 87 and lived in Grover Beach, California.

Although there was no obituary at the time, word of Wood’s death has since surfaced in a detailed Internet Movie Database bio, bylined by his son Mark, and in this introduction to his papers at the Belknap Collection for the Performing Arts at the University of Florida.

Wood began as a writer for radio, then made an unusual detour into directing live television and another into the executive suites of Madison Avenue, where he developed TV programs for the ad agency Young & Rubicam.  In the early sixties, Wood transitioned back into story editing and then freelancing for television.

(It wasn’t uncommon for ad execs to migrate into creative roles in early television.  Some of the prominent live TV directors – although none of those who became important filmmakers – doubled as agency staffers.  Recently I’ve been interviewing another major television writer, Jack Turley, who spent a decade planning and directing TV commercials for ad agencies before making a career move similar to Wood’s, and at the same time.)

As a live television director, Wood worked mainly on We the People and Holiday Hotel.  In Los Angeles, he began his writing career as a story editor on the underrated western Outlaws, and also served briefly as a story editor during the first season of The Wild Wild West.  He wrote episodes of Bonanza, Mr. Novak, Slattery’s People, The Virginian, The Addams Family, The Patty Duke Show, Rawhide, Destry, Gunsmoke, Matt Lincoln, Little House on the Prairie, Quincy M.E., Kaz, and Jessica Novak.

Wood’s most significant work came for producer / director / star Jack Webb, during the twilight years of Webb’s crime show empire.  Wood wrote a few episodes of the 1967 revival of Dragnet before moving over to Adam-12 as its primary writer (he penned ten out of twenty-six episodes during the first season) and then on to Emergency!  A bit more than the other early writers, Wood mastered Adam-12’s emphasis on arguably trivial vignettes that made up the professional life of its prowl-car cop protagonists.  My favorite Adam-12 is one of Wood’s.  The tense “Log 33” abandons the show’s usual loose structure and imprisons Officer Reed (Kent McCord) in a room with a tough Internal Affairs investigator (Jack Hogan) who shakes his confidence in his memory of an officer-involved shooting.

Wood seems to have evaded a comprehensive career interview.  I contacted him in 2004 but a brief correspondence subsided without the opportunity of an interview, and Michael Hayde, Jack Webb’s otherwise thorough biographer, seems to have missed Wood as well.  As Wood’s archive of scripts is one of the most comprehensive records of a television writer’s output that we have, so I particularly regret missing the opportunity to complement that resource with an account of the events in his career that occurred off the page.

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Also largely unreported: The death of comedy writer Norm Liebmann on December 20 of last year.  Born on January 16, 1928, Liebmann’s primary claim to fame derived from one-half of a murky “developed by” credit on The Munsters.  According to Stephen Cox’s The Munsters: A Trip Down Mockingbird Lane, a shady Universal executive merged Liebmann and collaborator Ed Haas’s proposal for the series with another by Allan Burns and Chris Hayward, without bothering to inform either set of writers until they met on the set.  A Writers Guild arbitration resulted in the convoluted (non-) creator credits.  Liebmann told Cox that he came up with some of the characters’ names, and he and Haas wrote a couple of early episodes.

Much of the rest of Liebmann’s resume holds more interest than The Munsters.  Alternating between sitcom and variety assignments, he wrote for the 1961 Bob Newhart Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Hazel, and Chico and the Man, as well as for Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, and Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.

The Screen Actors Guild has confirmed the death of actor Clark Howat on October 30 of last year.

Howat, who was born on January 22, 1918, was one of television’s most reliable small-part actors.  Tall and authoritative in his demeanor, Howat usually played doctors, politicians, military men, suburban dads, and of course cops.  TV fans will probably remember him best as a late member of the “Jack Webb Stock Company.”  Howat made more than a dozen appearances on the sixties revival of Dragnet, always as one of the commanding officers of the various LAPD divisions to which Sgt. Friday was assigned.

Howat was also an occasional writer, with at least one episode of The Detectives to his credit.  According to internet sources, Howat was the story editor on Hot Wheels (1969-1971), a cartoon based on the popular Mattel toys.

The image above comes from “Emergency Only,” a 1959 episode of One Step Beyond in which Howat has an atypically large role.  Howat is on the left, Lin McCarthy on the right.

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In case anyone’s keeping track – yes, posting here has been a bit light of late.  Just before I learned of Clark Howat’s death, I was about to put up the fishin’-hole still from The Andy Griffith Show again.  (That’s the graphic which signifies that I’m on vacation, for those of you who have not been keeping track.)  Rest assured, though, that momentum is not being lost, and that within a few weeks you’ll start to see some of the great content that’s in the works for 2010.

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