For the umpteenth time, one of the best shows on TV is circling the drain. “Southland,” once NBC’s anointed successor to “ER’s” time slot and more recently in residence on TNT, will air its fifth season-ender on Wednesday night. Let’s just hope it’s not the last we see of it.
“Southland” has not been the luckiest of TV dramas. A classic 10:00 p.m. show, it became a casualty of NBC’s suicidal Jay Leno primetime debacle, which forced the unfortunate rescheduling of dramas to the 9 o’clock hour. This made “Southland,” the grittiest TV show in years, an instant misfit in the eyes of NBC brass—after heavily promoting it they suddenly deemed the show “too violent” and refused to air its second season. Happily “Southland” did find a home on TNT, which not only aired the season NBC had scuttled in its entirety, but ordered additional episodes.
But there was a catch—more than one, in fact. Not only did the TNT seasons consist of fewer episodes, “Southland” became smaller in terms of budget and cast. Initially it featured the story of Police Cadet Ben Sherman (Ben McKenzie) learning the ropes from Training Officer John Cooper (a superb Michael Cudlitz) against the backdrop of a large ensemble of officers and detectives. But each year has seen the loss of key characters (I especially miss Officer Chickie Brown, Dewey’s beleaguered partner), resulting in the show’s focus on four leads—Cooper, Sherman, Detective Lydia Adams (Regina King) and Police Officer Sammy Bryant (Shawn Hatosy), once a detective and now partnered with Sherman.
“Southland” is not afraid to show the dark sides of its leading characters. Sammy, the classic “two steps forward, one step back” in the personality department, having smacked his ex-wife around, now realizes how badly he acted and wants to make good. Unfortunately his partner Ben, having lied for him to Internal Affairs, sought to protect himself by having some shady characters steal a video of the Bryants’ encounter from Sammy’s house, beating up the babysitter and traumatizing his kid in the process. And Cooper, a cop’s cop, is at a crossroads. His personal life is untethered (a two-year relationship just ended), and he knows his police career will soon come to a close. He doesn’t want to end up like a retired cop friend of his—a drunk bending the ears of all who will listen to his war stories. So Cooper, a gay man wanting more out of life than a police pension, seeks to have and co-parent a child with his ex-wife. It would be incredibly disappointing not to see these stories play out during another season.
“Southland”‘s hallmark is intense drama peppered with the absurd. This season has seen a faked death via a make-up artist’s acid bath; one of the earliest episodes is threaded with the sight of two hookers, having stolen a pro basketball player’s Bentley convertible, riding around with his huge Great Dane in the back seat and waving at Cooper and Sherman each time as they pass by. But when “Southland” gets dramatic, there’s nothing quite like it. Last week, in a plot reminiscent of Joseph Wambaugh’s “The Onion Field,” Cooper and his partner were ambushed and stripped of their weapons by two meth heads, whose kidnapping of the officers ended with the torture and murder of the partner. And one of “Southland”‘s most memorable sequences featured the lengths to which Detective Adams would go to defend the juvenile witness she’s sheltering in her own home against the gang looking to silence her. Regina King is absolutely brilliant in the role.
At this point “Southland”‘s chances for a sixth season look somewhat dim—the ratings have never been lower and Regina King, Ben McKenzie and Shawn Hatosy all have fallback plans for new shows. If it does end, here’s hoping “Southland” goes out on the high level it’s maintained over the years. At least we’ll be left with some great DVDs.