From the Top of the Mountain, There's Only a Valley and Whatever Lies Between
Last winter and into the spring, I spent hours watching the entire series of "The Wire" on DVD, catching up to watch its final fifth season live. Since then, in almost everything I've written for this site, I've praised the HBO series about Baltimore cops and the "criminals" they chase, usually in the same breath with slamming other television or film works for not even touching the bar "The Wire" set. It's just the best show in the history of television, and one of the best works of art I've ever seen. Period. And this is what kills me, and makes me curse the show's creator, David Simon. By showing me how good TV can get, I'm ruined on anything that settles for less, especially dramas. "The Wire" changed the way I think about society and government and education and all of their collective problems, which makes it all the harder for me to tune in to brainless procedurals my grandparents enjoy just for some mild brain stimulation at the end of the day. Simon summed it up best himself in his pitch for the show in 2001 to Carolyn Strauss, then of HBO:
It is a significant victory for HBO to counter program alternative, inaccessible worlds against standard network fare. But it would, I will argue, be a more profound victory for HBO to take the essence of network fare and smartly turn it on its head, so that no one who sees HBO's take on the culture of crime and crime fighting can watch anything like "C.S.I." or "N.Y.P.D. Blue" or "Law & Order" again without knowing that every punch was pulled on those shows. For HBO to step toe-to-toe with NBC or ABC and create a cop show that seizes the highest qualitative ground through realism, good writing, and a more brutal assessment of police, police work, and the drug culture -- this may not be the beginning of the end for network dramas as the industry standard, but it is certainly the end of the beginning for HBO.
It's almost unfair that cop shows have to compete with "The Wire," just as it's unfair I began a review of one of the latest said shows by detailing why it can never be great because greatness has already been accomplished. But it's the best way I can make it clear that I'm almost at a loss to talk about "Southland," NBC's drama about the LAPD. It's good, fairly engaging, interesting. It's "Wire" Light, which is OK. Not a bad way to spend 44 minutes, and certainly a better option for the masses than most of what's on primetime. But, being on network television and having an executive producer of John Wells, the man who gave us too many years of "E.R." and who gutted the heart and soul of "The West Wing" once Aaron Sorkin left, viewers can expect a lot of darkness in the set design, not in the actual story.
Following various beat cops and detectives in South Los Angeles, the key character is Officer Ben Sherman (Ben McKenzie), whom we meet on his first day on the job, riding around town with the fairly annoying Officer John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz). McKenzie plays the wide-eyed rookie well, but blends in reserve and sensitivity and intelligence to make the character easily likable. His fellow officers are a tad unnerved, though, especially when Cooper finds out that Ben comes from wealth, and this is where the plot is eerily similar to ABC's new cop show, "The Unusuals." In that, Amber Tamblyn's character comes from money but decided to be a cop out of principle or something. But she wants her background to stay there, and apparently Ben does, too. But both characters are outed to the viewers by people from their pasts who can't believe they're wearing badges. What they are out to prove isn't clear, but at least in "Southland's" pilot we get the sense that Ben has separated himself from his family ties and likely whatever career path he was designed for. Cooper is rude to him, though, and tells him he has "90210 written all over him." OK. Another cop -- the requisite loudmouth and hothead who gets his ass shot for sucking at his job as well at life -- refers to Ben as "Generation Y" as he's yelling at him to get out of his way and obey his orders. Really? These are insults? No case was made for the viewer to feel either way about Ben's apparent fish-out-of-water experience, but the writing and fake conflict are so two-dimensional that we end up not at all blaming the intelligent Ben for questioning the choice of working with these guys. I thought this was supposed to make us like cops?
Other characters that are followed are Det. Lydia Adams (Regina King) and Det. Russell Clark (Tom Everett Scott), and a few others. King is busy furrowing her brow and looking concerned while Scott stands in the background and does nothing. I'll give the writers this, though: For a primetime show, they were willing to let two young kids be hurt, one gunned down and the other abducted and killed, as well as show a partly decomposed body that had been lunch for rabid dogs. That subject matter was more believable than the actual banter between the cops, if not truly dark, but it may be the show's saving grace. The hitch comes in that "Southland's" pilot has some Crash-like qualities to it in that the cases being followed and the cops working them are all slightly connected, even if it's just Ben and Cooper driving past the young girl right before she is kidnapped and before Adams and Russell are brought to the scene. L.A. is kinda big, and the sooner writers stop trying to connect all of its residents' lives -- and never follow Paul Haggis' lead on anything -- the better we'll all be.
For its shortcomings, "Southland's" strength will undoubtedly be the talented McKenzie, whom I've liked since "The O.C.," which I truthfully followed all the way through its four seasons. But it was in that least-watched fourth season that some surprisingly funny and touching moments came and where McKenzie sharpened his timing skills and proved he could do more than brood and skulk and brood some more. That season also came after his impressive turn in Junebug," and hopefully he'll continue to be in more projects. That his presence is a main reason to tune in continues a trend this spring season in TV, such as with Jeremy Renner on "The Unusuals" and Nathan Fillion on "Castle" stealing their respective shows. The shows aren't great, but with great actors taking what they can get, we'll have to do the same as well. Which brings us full circle. "Southland" can only represent reality as it's deemed acceptable by broadcast networks and advertisers. It's grittier than, say, "Law & Order," and will be worth keeping up with for now, but we'll watch it mainly because it's on, and it's one of the better cop shows airing and, well, why not? We hit the peak; now there's nowhere to go but down.
Sarah Carlson has a front-row seat to the decline of the newspaper industry and lives in Alabama with her overly excitable Welsh Corgi.