Pulled by NBC in its second season for being too “dark” for the 9 p.m. time slot, Southland was rescued by TNT, albeit with a far lower budget. The subsequent trimming of fat kicked off a two-year escalation in quality, culminating in a fourth season that goes a long way toward filling the void left by Vic Mackey’s desk assignment. Key to the show’s success is a preoccupation with character as opposed to plot; it’s far more concerned with cop culture than with specific cases. The first season was held back by the sprawling cast and the broad strokes it necessitated, but the restrictions of a cable budget forced the producers to streamline, leaving us with four regular characters who’ve gained considerable dimension.
Handsome but troubled rookie Ben Sherman and ex-addict/current-hardass John Cooper are the patrol division’s primary holdovers from the first season. Initially a pair of police-drama archetypes, they’ve grown into fully fleshed-out characters played with sensitivity by Benjamin McKenzie and Michael Cudlitz, respectively. Along with partners Sammy Bryant (an alternately brooding and mischievous Shawn Hatosy) and Jessica Tang (Lucy Liu in possibly the best role of her career), they form the heart of Southland, giving viewers a ride-along to at least one heart-stopping moment per episode. Their encounters on the city streets are suffused with local color, the location shooting and verite camerawork giving the proceedings a jolt of energy and authenticity.
The other half of the show’s primary focus is homicide detective Lydia Adams, a role inhabited with almost too much gravity by Regina King, who consistently transcends the material she’s given. Her subplots are almost always the weakest of the series, partly due to their more plot-driven nature. There are only so many fictional homicide investigations left that can catch an audience off guard. Also troubling is the fourth season’s ham-handed approach to Adams’s out-of-leftfield pregnancy. Impending childbirth is, at best, a narrative minefield when dealing with strong female characters, and the writers do a particularly shoddy job here. Adams makes one boneheaded decision after another, repeatedly putting herself and her baby at risk, all to some nebulous end of avoiding a desk for as long as possible. The third time she finds herself assaulted by a perp twice her size, one can’t help but wonder what happened to the über-professional of the previous three seasons. The slasher-victim levels of stupidity aren’t made any more palatable by the thudding parallels drawn between her cases and her personal life.
None of this detracts from the overall watchability of the show. It’s a reliably engrossing hour of television, capable of switching gears from relaxed banter to shocking violence in a split second. Every moment that the street cops are on screen feels like it’s been drawn from actual police reports, giving the show a particularly life-like quality. The stylized aesthetic can work in a cop drama (see Justified), as does mile-a-minute sensationalism (The Shield), but Southland, more than any other, vies for realism. The best parts of the series feature the officers rolling through their territory, swapping anecdotes and pop philosophy, the city’s barely contained aggression simmering around them, inching ever closer to a boiling point. One moment a character is settling a married couple’s argument over whether the sex got too kinky, and the next a 300-pound sociopath is taking a bite out of their neck. It’s like Cops, only less contrived and without the racism.