Few TV dramas are as direct and understated as Southland, which returns for a fifth season tonight (TNT, Wednesdays, 10 p.m.). Creator Anne Biderman’s cop drama has a you-are-there feeling that fuses aspects of gritty pay-cable drama, reality TV, documentaries, and square, old-school shows such as Dragnet and Adam-12. Sometimes it gets up on a soapbox about cops’ lives, with their damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t conundrums; a few of the PSA-like monologues sound so “written” that not even the show’s thespian MVP, Michael Cudlitz, can save them. And there are plot twists that just seem contrived and dumb, as if the writers painted themselves into a corner and drew a new door on a wall to escape. (Regina King’s Detective Lydia acts out one such flourish in tonight’s premiere; it’s subpar SVU stuff.)
But most of the time, thank goodness, Southland prizes journalistic detail over verbal exposition and moldy cop-show tropes, and when it goes deep into a cinematic moment, it’s dazzling. The show is attuned to the soldier mentality of big-city beat cops, who have to stay frosty and alert. After a while, the viewer starts to see the world through their eyes and hear it through their ears. On Southland, the only reality is the one that’s right in front of you, or behind you, or just over the next fence, or beyond the squad car’s windshield. You hear an infant crying somewhere inside a nondescript suburban house, or the muffled thumpa-thump of helicopter rotors swooping toward a crime scene, or an eerie quiet in a courtyard that should be bustling with life, and you tense up. What’ll it be? Silence or violence?
Southland has the same attitude toward characterization: just the facts, ma’am. Every now and then you get a network-TV-style, “Here, in 100 words or less, is exactly what I am feeling” moment. For the most part, though, what we see and hear is all we’re allowed to know, and it’s enough, just as the accumulation of moments in a fly-on-the-wall documentary are enough to make us feel for the subjects.
Lydia is a mom now, but she’s not feeling the sense of elated completeness that society tells new moms they’re supposed to feel. She's embarrassed that she lactates through her uniform shirt and that her baby’s cries make her feel stressed out and inadequate. Her gratitude to her own mother for stepping in as caretaker is neutralized by intense guilt. When she comes home late and hears the child crying inside, she loiters by her car for a long moment because she’s not strong enough to open her front door. Lydia doesn’t have to come out and tell us most of this information; we glean it from watching her and listening to her, just as spending a few scenes in the company of Officer Sammy Bryant (Shawn Hatosy) reveals that he’s on the edge of emotional implosion. He’s depressed and angry over his recent divorce and custody battles. He’s pissed at the universe, and he’s taking it out on his rich, pretty-boy partner, Ben Sherman (Ben McKenzie), who just got a medal for bravery and has become the LAPD’s new recruiting face. Not that Ben doesn’t deserve the abuse: The department is blowing so much sunshine up his ass that he’s floating above it all like a smug-faced parade balloon — and he’s making rookie mistakes, like yukking it up on the phone with his sister within earshot of an elderly woman whose sister just got murdered.
Cudlitz’s character, the closeted gay training officer John Cooper, has settled so deeply into his role as a departmental father figure that an existential weariness has crept into his eyes and voice. His regular boyfriend keeps busting his chops about being physically absent and emotionally unavailable; both charges are true, but at this point in his life, he knows there’s not much he can do about them. A young woman with Down syndrome keeps bringing him cupcakes at work and asking him out. The other guys refer to her as his girlfriend, and because they don’t know he’s gay, they have no idea that this joke is bitterly funny on two levels. Cooper’s new partner is an ex-soldier who served in Afghanistan and put on a blue uniform because police work paid reasonably well, not because he wanted to be a cop. He uses his war experience as a cudgel to beat down gripes that he’s too glib and disinterested to be a good cop. Cooper acts like he’s taking the BS in stride — “I did a tour at Baskin-Robbins,” he deadpans — but you can tell he’d like to box the kid’s ears.
And as the cops are dealing with all this personal mishegoss, reality keeps erupting around them: domestic disturbances, street-corner arguments, drunken brawls, gangland beefs, internal affairs investigations, media scandals. Marriages break up. Colleagues get too full of themselves and commit catastrophic errors in judgment. Cop culture isolates cops from the people they serve and brings out bullying tendencies. Some cops are just bullies to begin with, like C. Thomas Howell’s recovering alcoholic Dewey Dudek, a dry drunk who could star in a reality show titled Jackass With a Badge. (He says of Cooper’s “girlfriend,” “Dude, if you don’t smash that biscuit, I will!” then cackles as if it’s the funniest thing anyone has ever said.) The LAPD is ultimately just another institution that’s more concerned with covering its ass and minimizing liability than taking care of its so-called human resources. (“They say they have your back,” says a cop who’s being investigated by internal affairs, “but they’ll throw you under the bus faster than anyone.”) And the public? A nuisance, mostly, unless they’re bringing you cupcakes or shooting at you.
Southland’s tone reminds me of Joseph Wambaugh’s cop novels, the original feature film version of M*A*S*H, and Michael Herr’s Vietnam memoir Dispatches. It’s tough and sardonic but not affectedly so. It has a tender heart, but it’s never sentimental, because the free-floating air of matter-of-fact pessimism tries out any treacle just when it starts to well up. Southland will start to show you a conventionally powerful moment — one character realizing that a friend has betrayed him, or another character coming to terms with terrible loss — then cut away, denying you the catharsis that series drama so often provides. The show’s attitude toward its milieu and characters is that of a noninterventionist god who knows what’s coming, and feels for those who suffer, but can’t do anything about any of it, because Southland’s universe is unmerciful. Life happens, and you deal.