Generally speaking, television producers seem to have two ideas in their bag of tricks: doctor dramas and police dramas. So it’s no real surprise to find that creator/producer John Wells is following up his 15-year run on the recently concluded med show “ER” with the new cop show “Southland.”
At first glance, the new series looks familiar. There’s the handheld camera for extra, documentary-like grit. There’s the rough dialogue and bleeped-out language to give it that basic cable edge. And there is the familiar retinue of cops—a mixture of the green, the seasoned, the corrupt, the moral and the just plain burned-out. But give “Southland” a little time to unfold and you’ll see a crime series almost as distinctive as “ER” was (at least initially) as a medical series.
Like “ER” (again, initially), “Southland” is an on-the-job show. It doesn’t waste much time following our characters home and allowing their kitchen sink drama to take center stage. Instead, it sticks with them as they perform their 9-to-5 and allows bits of their personality and personal life to leak into the narrative slowly, organically.
Our main point of focus here is rookie cop Ben Sherman (Ben McKenzie from “The O.C.”)—who’s about to have a major crisis of faith his first day out on the street. Over the course of the show’s tense premiere episode, we come to understand that clean-cut, soft-spoken Ben comes from a well-to-do Beverly Hills family. What the heck inspired him to sign on to this brutal, life-threatening job? So far, “Southland” isn’t telling. Surrounding Ben is an intriguing cast of characters. There’s his partner, seasoned L.A. cop John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz, A River Runs Through It). There’s harried detective Lydia Adams (Regina King, Ray). There’s unhappily married detective Russell Clarke (Tom Everett Scott, That Thing You Do!). There’s patrol officer Chickie Brown (Arija Bareikis, “Crossing Jordan”), a single mom who dreams of being the first woman accepted into SWAT. And there are others, of course, all of whom will likely emerge from the background sooner or later.
“Southland” is a subtle piece of work, almost Altmanesque in its approach to storytelling. A huge character roster, rapid-fire dialogue and multiple storylines give it the sprawling feel of Altman’s “city” pictures (Nashville, Short Cuts, Kansas City). Scenes are brief, dialogue is quick and it takes a little while to orient yourself in this world.
“Southland” isn’t heavily concerned with the police procedural side of things. This isn’t the crime-solving minutia of “CSI.” Instead, “Southland” quietly follows patrol officers, detectives and assorted people in the neighborhood through their day. Some stories end well, some end badly and some hang realistically unresolved in the show’s all-too-brief 40-odd minutes of runtime. This may be familiar territory, but it’s obviously being covered by some serious professionals.