Why We’re Still Mourning Southland

by Ariel Kay June 27, 2013 6:00 am
Why We’re Still Mourning <i>Southland</i>

This week, we honor the bravery of our founding fathers who, over two centuries ago, fought a war against an empire so that we could have the freedoms we enjoy today. And what better way to celebrate American exceptionalism then by watching a made-for-TV movie about aliens? Syfy is airing its latest flick, Independence Daysaster, starring Tom Everett Scott on June 27. Scott's character, Sam, must defend the planet from invading extraterrestrials along with a team of "rogue scientists." Scott, as you may well remember, played Detective Russell Clarke on Southland, the guy who was kicked off the force for selling pictures of a celebrity crime scene. Independence Daysaster looks like quite a step down from the critically-acclaimed Southland -- though who knows, maybe this alien flick will reinvigorate the entire genre. Whatever the case, this momentous occasion provides a great opportunity for us to take a look back at Southland, which was just cancelled in May after its fifth season finale.

There are dozens of cop shows out there. None of them are as good as Southland was at its best (that's right, this post contains bold declarative statements). Shaky-cam filmmaking and descriptors like "gritty crime drama" have become pretty ubiquitous as of late, but Southland was more than just a tough look at the LAPD and the criminals it works to put away. The show had some truly awesome acting, morally complex plotlines that made the audience question even their favorite characters, and a finale that I'm still thinking about (for reasons both good and bad). Let's go over the reasons why the show was so exceptional -- which are, conversely, the reasons why it never found a huge audience, and was inevitably taken off the air. (And for the record, massive budget cuts along the way, and a switch from NBC to TNT after its first season didn't help Southland's longevity, to say the least.)

Hyper realism
Full disclosure: I've never been a cop in Los Angeles, let alone anywhere else. Pretty much everything I know about the fuzz I learned from movies and TV. On further reflection, these may not have been the best teaching tools. Example: in real life, not every criminal confesses seven minutes into their first interrogation like on Law and Order, and not every lab tech is a lovable geek who speaks fluent sarcasm (sorry, NCIS and CSI fans). Southland dealt both with the high intensity of bringing down the bad guys -- or of being the bad guys -- and with mundanities, like setting up roadblocks or doling out parking tickets. Obviously, the show had lots of drama, but it didn't pretend that all its characters were superheroes. Most importantly, it looked real. Southland used actual ex-gang members as extras, and shot on location in LA. Additionally, the show was faithful to the actual day-to-day grind of being a police officer; not every case got solved, and even when suspects were caught, it didn't mean that everyone's lives were magically better. All this made the show seem like a slice right out of real life... but for some viewers, real life isn't as good to watch as comfortable TV tropes.

Unpredictable Time Jumps
Southland bucked the standard procedural format by varying from the standard one-case-per-episode plotlines that Law and Order has been drilling into our heads for 249 years (or however long that show's been on). Instead, most episodes followed the characters (both cops and detectives) as they went about their days, issuing traffic tickets, collecting evidence, tackling thugs, what have you. Sometimes a case would run for multiple episodes -- like when Sammy (Shawn Hatosy) spent half a season trying to find the murderer of his former partner (Kevin Alejandro). But more frequently, characters were juggling multiple storylines at once. This made for a more interesting, complex and integrated narrative, but it was also harder to follow, especially when story arcs would get dropped and loose ends stayed loose. Again, that's the way things go in the real world, which evidentially isn't as sexy as neatly-packaged crime-fighting.

Confusing Schedule
Some viewers also complained about Southland's short seasons (six to ten episodes a piece) especially when most cable dramas stretch themselves to 22 or 24. But the limited airtime meant that every episode had to count. All the filler got cut, leaving only the most essential components of the story. So the parts the audience could figure out for themselves -- like Cooper's (Michael Cudlitz) entire rehab stint, or the birth of Lydia's (Regina King) baby -- didn't make it into the final product, allowing for more interesting content. It may seem counterintuitive that when you like a show, you would want it to produce fewer episodes. But think about the Nikki and Paulo episode of Lost, or the last two seasons of The Office; if those shows were cut down to 13 episodes per season, maybe we wouldn't have had to sit through their worst moments.

Ben McKenzie
If you know who Ben McKenzie is, you probably know him from The O.C., that paragon of high school soap operas that aired from 2003 to 2007. McKenzie played Ryan Atwood, a kid from the rough side of town who is adopted by millionaires Sandy and Kirsten Cohen, and who was the epitome of a broody teenager. McKenzie's a good actor, and he inhabited his Southland part, Officer Ben Sherman, pretty skillfully. But for most people who watched The O.C., he'll always by Ryan. That should stop. For the first few episodes of Southland it may have been hard to reconcile that McKenzie wasn't wearing Ryan Atwood's trademark wife beater and accompanying scowl. But the show gave him more material in 43 episodes than The O.C. did in more than twice that many hours. (Diehard McKenzie fans should also check out indie movie Junebug, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2005.)

Officer Cooper
Cooper (Michael Cudlitz) was a cranky, pill-addicted beat cop with no qualms about pissing people off, even his partners. He was also one of only two gay characters TNT has ever depicted (sorry, Rizzoli & Isles doesn't count). Though he did frequent a gay bar the very first episode, his sexuality didn't become really apparent until the show's second season (the bar didn't have dancing boys in cages, so plenty of people missed that it was, you know, for the gays). Cooper's love life was never as prominently featured as Sherman's, or even Lydia's lack of romantic activity, which was well documented. In some ways, it was a good thing that Southland never reduced Cooper to just "the gay one" or in any other way made him into a stereotype. But the show was so sketchy on Cooper's personal life (we didn't even find out he was in a three-year relationship until his boyfriend ended things), especially in later seasons when the character's personal lives became a stronger element of the show, that it couldn't help but feel like Cooper was being neglected on purpose.

At the tail end of Season 5 audiences did get a brief plotline based around Cooper's sexuality -- and he actually says "I'm gay" for the first and only time of the entire series -- when he comes out to his new partner, Lucero (Anthony Ruivivar). Unfortunately, Lucero got axed by a couple of meth heads the next episode, and Southland was canceled. So much for that storyline playing out.

In real life, when people get dumped, or shot, or a paper cut, or in any way experience physical or emotional pain, most of them don't say "darn." They don't say "shoot," or "ugh" or even "damn." They say "fuck." You know who doesn't say fuck? Cable television characters.

Southland knew that to have any credibility when depicting drugged-up criminals, frustrated cops, and LA middle school students, it was going to have to drop a whole bunch of F-bombs. In a compromise with the FCC, Southland had its characters curse all the time, but the censors bleeped it out. The thing about a bleep, though, is that I'm already thinking the "bad" word in my head as soon as I hear it. It's not as though I hear "That was a *****ing delicious sandwich," and then have to puzzle for three days over which modifier the speaker was using. Don't get me wrong, bleeps are annoying, and a constant reminder that cable is governed by a bunch of goodie-two-shoes who think they need to protect the delicate sensibilities of all the children up at 10 PM watching gritty crime dramas. But when I hear a bleep, I also hear someone cursing, at least in my head. In that way, Southland was like an hour-long ACLU propaganda special each week: it kept on arguing, "See, bleeping is stupid." If only being right equated to getting ratings.

In the end, Southland may not have been a program for the masses. But if you'd like to explore beyond the safety of your many CSI franchises and see a far more accurate, engaging depiction of what it's like to actually wear a badge, you should check it out. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better crime show outside of The Wire. (Sorry, nothing trumps The Wire.)

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