Tuesday, April 7, 2009
"Southland" is killer drama
There are lots of ways you can describe NBC's new police drama "Southland." "ER" with cops. "Hill Street Blues" with curse words. "The Shield" with cops who aren't more dangerous than the criminals. All are fairly accurate.
The ensemble series is executive produced by "ER" producer John Wells, and features that medical drama's hectic pace and inside baseball feel. It also possesses the messy realism of Steven Bochco's classic "Hill Street" and aspires to the grittiness of Shawn Ryan's masterpiece "The Shield."
But all these comparisons do "Southland" a disservice. In fact, perhaps this is the best way to describe the series, which debuts this week in "ER's" 10 p.m. Thursday timeslot: it's just really good.
The show focuses on a group of patrol officers and detectives in Los Angeles. These range from rookie Ben Sherman (Ben McKenzie, last seen whaling people in the face on "The O.C.") to his seasoned trainer John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz) to steely but kind Detective Lydia Adams (Regina King, of "Ray" and "Jerry Maguire) to gang specialists Nate Moretta (Kevin Alejandro) and Sammy Bryant (Shawn Hatosy). Throughout the pilot, the officers work on a variety of cases: shootings; a missing child; a dead body found in a rather disgusting state.
None of it's terribly surprising, and the pilot sometimes over-reaches in an attempt to be "edgy" (there are a lot of bleeped out curse words, which is distracting). Still, the banter between the cops is believably loose and familiar, and the characters are relatable and compelling. That's largely due to the excellent cast.
McKenzie was a bit misused on "The O.C.," but gets a better shake, here. In his hands, Sherman is an instantly sympathetic character. Like "ER's" John Carter, Sherman is trying to get his bearings in a scary new profession. Also like Carter, Sherman comes from wealth and privilege, giving the character some interesting texture. McKenzie each wrinkle. In the scenes where he sits alongside Cooper in the squad car, there are so many conflicting emotions on McKenzie face -- anxiety, fear, shame and, most importantly, determination -- the viewer can't help but feel for this kid. In the episode's final moments, the character gets a quick lesson in the violence his job requires and we ache for him.
But, if McKenzie is good, the rest of the accomplished ensemble is even better. As Cooper, Cudlitz has the weathered air of a man who has been scraping scum of the streets of L.A. for far too long. Even his teasing of Sherman seems weary. It's the perfect note for this character: a man who takes pride in the fact that he knows his job so well, but who's starting to wonder if he's a bit too familiar with human suffering.
And King, an excellent character actress whom I've always admired, is perfect as a woman who has seen too much, but who hasn't gone dead inside because of it.
The rest of the cast includes such familiar faces as Tom Everett Scott, C. Thomas Howell and character actor Patrick Fischler (recently see as acerbic comedian Jimmy Barrett on "Mad Men" and bumbling security officer Phil on "Lost").
"Southland" isn't the most original drama to hit the airwaves, but it's smart, sensitive, well-acted and well-made. And, at a time when many believe TV drama to be on the downslide, isn't that accomplishment enough?
"Southland" premieres 10 p.m. Thursday on NBC.