Warner Bros. // 2009 // 300 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // February 1st, 2010
It's hellish work.
"We can't let her just go into the system."
The city of Los Angeles may be regarded by many as a place of glitz and glamour, but like any big city, it's also a very dangerous place. Criminals of all sorts are waiting around every corner; there are literal and metaphorical ticking time bombs to be found everywhere. It's the job of the Los Angeles Police Department to deal with as many of these problems as they can on a daily basis.
We watch as seasoned cop John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz, Crossing Over) attempts to teach a rookie cop (Ben McKenzie, Junebug) from Beverly Hills the ropes.
We watch as Detective Lydia Adams (Regina King, The Boondocks) attempts to keep moving on in the wake of her failed marriage. We watch as Lydia's partner Detective Russell Clarke (Tom Everett Scott, Race to Witch Mountain) attempts to balance his heavy workload with his family life.
We watch as Officer Chickie Brown (Arija Bareikis, Before the Devil Knows Your Dead) contemplates whether or not to turn in Officer Billy Dewey (C. Thomas Howell, Hidalgo), her increasingly troubled partner who is quickly succumbing to alcoholism.
We watch as Detective Sammy Bryant (Shawn Hatosy, Public Enemies) attempts to keep a teenage girl (Carla Jeffery, Curb Your Enthusiasm) safe from villainous thugs who want to prevent her from testifying.
These are just some of the stories being told in the epic tapestry that is Southland: The Complete First Season. Not all of them will have happy endings.
When NBC started airing the promos for Southland back in early 2009, I immediately decided that I didn't want to watch the show. The promos made the program look like a pretentious, second-rate knockoff of Paul Haggis' Crash filtered through the oh-so-tiresome sensibilities of a network cop show. Nonetheless, the show was reasonably well-received by audiences and critics, and as such was renewed for a second season. However, shortly before the second-season episodes were set to air, NBC abruptly canceled Southland with six episodes already in the can. The reason? They had deemed the program to be "too dark" for the 9 PM hour. Farewell Southland, we hardly knew ye.
Ah, but wait. That's not the end of the story. Shortly after NBC's decision, cable network TNT swooped in and purchased the rights to the show, including all seven first-season episodes and the six completed second-season episodes. Having just finished watching the first season of Southland, I can say two things with certainty. First, the show deserves to survive, because it's vastly better than the NBC promos indicated (the current promos being run by TNT, underscored by Johnny Cash's "God's Gonna Cut You Down," do a far better job of effectively giving viewers a feel for the tone of the show). Second, the show is far better-suited to TNT, because it never felt like a network show to begin with.
One of the most refreshing things about Southland is that it never feels remotely like a formulaic cop show. It's not centered around some blandly rugged, wisecracking lead, the episodes don't adhere to a "done-in-one" rulebook, traditional three-act structure is frequently undercut by unpredictable developments and almost everything is painted in complex shades of gray. The cops on the show are frequently portrayed as deeply flawed human beings (and sometimes dangerous ones), but overall Southland paints law enforcement officers in a very positive light. This isn't so much because of their occasional heroic actions, but because the program does such a good job of immersing us in their day-to-day world and giving us a generous dose of what these men and women experience on a regular basis. It almost becomes easy to forgive these characters a few nasty vices, when you see what they have to put up with every single day.
That immersive factor is a large part of what makes Southland so successful, as the show does its best to dispense with anything that might allow a sense of artifice to creep into the proceedings. Sure, the lack of a score and the shaky-cam footage are superficial steps toward this, but the convincing dialogue and absolutely unpredictable plotting really seal the deal. The program really drops you into the world of these characters uninitiated, avoiding those cheesy scenes in which one character tells another something both parties already know for the sake of catching viewers up to speed. At any moment, an ongoing plot strand may be interrupted by something else. This could just be a little bump in the road, or it could change the direction of the episode entirely.
The naturalistic acting is strong across the board, though my favorite performance comes from Regina King as Detective Lydia Adams. King is one of the most easily likable characters in the show; an empathetic and thoughtful person who's truly using her position to help people in as many ways as she can. King gets a lot of meaty dramatic scenes over the course of these seven episodes, and she handles them with grace and subtlety. She's particularly magnificent during the ultra-tense season finale. Close second goes to Michael Cudlitz, who manages to be rather good at his job despite his off-the-book pill-popping and his frequently surly attitude. Ben McKenzie makes a smooth transition from The O.C. to a show with considerably more substance, hitting some terrific dramatic notes that surprised me at times.
The series benefits from a solid DVD transfer, featuring sharp detail, deep blacks and accurate flesh tones. Despite the show's shaky-cam tendencies, there's still an appealing polish that manages to work its way into the aesthetic. The audio is fine, with rather immersive sound design featured throughout along with sharp, clean dialogue. Music plays a somewhat minimal role in the program, with the oddly middle-eastern-sounding theme and a small handful of songs being the only items of note in that department. Extras are limited to a single featurette: "Southland: Redefining the Cop Drama."
Man, is that episode with Tom Sizemore grating on the nerves at times or what?
Southland is an impressive show, well worth checking out. Here's hoping it survives on TNT for years to come.
Review content copyright © 2010 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 300 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated