It’s not official yet that “Southland” will not return for a sixth season, but given the paltry ratings and the fact that several cast members have signed on to other pilots in anticipation of their show’s cancellation, it looks like last night’s episode will be the last of the series.
It was dark. It was brutal. And it was real.
Through five seasons, few shows have captured simple human drama the way that “Southland” has. Low-rated on NBC and eventually picked up by TNT, “Southland” never seemed to be that interested in doing the sort of things that increase ratings or draw in new viewers. There is no procedural component to “Southland,” and even the serialized nature of the show was secondary to what the drama was attempting to do, which was to capture the spirit of what it’s like to be a cop. The big takeaway from five seasons of “Southland,” in fact, is that the job of a police officer is not, ultimately, to prevent crime, but to move it around, displace it, or time shift it. Nothing ever changes: They investigate murders; they catch some bad guys, and some times they don’t; they write tickets; they follow leads; and they put up with bullsh*t from a citizenry that not only takes law enforcement for granted, but pay them little respect.
It was five seasons of Sissyphus pushing that goddamn rock up the mountain, but for those of us who watched it, we gained an incredible appreciation for the work of beat cops and detectives. They get up every day, and they shovel sh*t, and they do it, not for money or the power because God knows there’s little of that in an honest cop’s life, but because every great once in a while, they make a difference, not in the crime rate, but in a single person’s life. Unfortunately, for every win, there seems to be half a dozen losses.
That’s what “Southland” was about, though: It was about capturing a slice of these people’s lives, about understanding what it is that motivates them to wake up each morning and do the same thing over and over again with the same results. Some people call that insanity; I call it bravery, courage, and determination. I call it being alive.
But as is bound to happen when you watch the same four or five people deal with that grind over the course of five years, you become attached to them. In this, the likely final season, some of the stories became more personal. Regina King’s character had to deal with being a homicide detective and a single mom to an infant, and what it means to be able to compartmentalize the horrors the job and separate that from motherhood. The reality is, you can’t separate those horrors, and sometimes, things fall through the cracks. Or you have to carry your baby on a front pack to investigate a murder.
Michael Cudlitz — who played Officer John Cooper — was the real star of this season, however, and he turned in a Cranston-like performance as a tough but quiet cop who kept his homosexuality out of his job, not because he needed to, but because that’s what he believed was appropriate. He also managed to survive a number of tragedies and emotional traumas, but in the end, it wasn’t the job that broke him. It was something as small as the incessant noise of a humming generator that was his undoing. After surviving the life of a beat cop for years, the thugs and the gangsters and the shootings, and after losing his partner and nearly being dumped into a shallow grave himself it was something so small, and so human that was the breaking point that cost John Cooper his life.
It’s the perfect illustration of what “Southland” did best: It didn’t tell the big, ratings-grabbing stories. It told the human ones. Hopefully, one day the millions of people who passed “Southland” up the first time around will discover it on Netflix or Amazon and discover what really was the best cop show on television since “The Wire” and the most human one since “Friday Night Lights.” The show, likes the cops it depicts, deserved so much more respect than it ever received.