‘Southland’: Television’s Most Underrated Drama

TNT’s gripping ‘Southland’ has returned to low ratings. Jace Lacob on this criminally overlooked show.

Doug Hyun/Turner Entertainment

Why aren’t more of you watching Southland?

Created by Ann Biderman (NYPD Blue) and executive-produced by John Wells (ER), TNT’s uncompromising cop drama returned for a fifth season last week to only 1.16 million viewers, down 34 percent from last year. In a television season that has given us dreck like Zero Hour, Mob Doctor, and Do No Harm, Southland should be a hit.

That it’s not is a shame, as Southland remains one of the most morally complex and insightful dramas on television today. It deftly juggles multiple crimes and incidents, as well as the private lives of these LAPD officers and detectives, played by an extraordinary cast that includes Ben McKenzie, Regina King, Shawn Hatosy, and Michael Cudlitz.

Southland shines at showing these officers as both heroes and flawed individuals whose psychological issues are often magnified by carrying a badge and gun. The battles they face—pregnancy, drug addiction, custody, the death of a loved one, a fallen comrade—are often just as dangerous as gunfire in the line of duty.

Season 5 of Southland continues the slow moral erosion of Ben Sherman (McKenzie), who began the series as a naïve rookie officer and who slowly has been transformed into a decorated, hardened cop whose motivations are often now less than altruistic. McKenzie, best known for his role as Ryan Atwood on Fox’s The O.C., carries himself completely differently than he did when Southland began back in 2009, the weight of what Officer Sherman has seen and experienced etched on his forehead in visible lines. As an actor, the maturity does McKenzie good; he’s cast off the “pretty” label that plagues many former teen drama actors, exchanging his adolescence for a tempered adulthood.

When Ben asks his barber to cut off his blond locks in the season premiere, it isn’t just a physical transformation for the character but a deeper psychological one. It is another manifestation of Ben’s colder, harder persona and his unexpected lack of empathy, one that manifests itself in surprising ways. When, in last week’s episode (“Hats and Bats”), he takes a phone call from his sister while standing feet away from an elderly woman whose sister has been brutally murdered in the home they shared, it’s a shock to Sammy Bryant (Hatosy), yet more evidence of his poster boy partner’s disregard for anyone but himself.

Is it that protecting the innocent—being granted powers and responsibilities beyond mere ordinary folk—sets you apart from humanity? Does power, in its insidious way, corrupt even the most noble of hearts?

These are intriguing questions, particularly when they’re being posited by a cop drama that isn’t centered around an antihero. While Southland has most certainly embraced its gritty tone, and several characters have succumbed to seeing the worst around them, it’s not a series with an inherently bleak outlook. Despite his screwed-up personal life, Hatosy’s Sammy remains a bastion of goodness amid the depravity of the criminals around him. Catching bad guys is perhaps the one thing he’s good at, yet he is never consumed by their darkness.

The sight of Hatosy scrubbing blood off the aforementioned elderly woman’s bathroom walls and floor is troubling for several reasons, not least of which is that it physicalizes the sense that he exists to clean up after everyone else. It’s the copper-as-garbage-man mentality, one that also permeates Wednesday night’s episode (“Heat”), including a nasty encounter between the closeted John Cooper (Cudlitz)—a virtuoso tightrope performance on a weekly basis—and an aggrieved ice cream store customer who reminds Cooper that she pays his salary. And Detective Lydia Adams (Regina King), often Southland’s MVP and now a sleep-deprived new mother this season, discovers yet again that police officers are not immune to the loss and heartbreak that plague the people they protect.

Despite the numerous accolades—including last season’s searing Lucy Liu arc, which earned every positive review it garnered—Southland hasn’t had a smooth journey. It began its life on NBC as a 10 p.m. drama and quickly received a second-season renewal. However, the increasingly dark tone of the show concerned the network, particularly as it was being moved to a 9 p.m. Friday timeslot, and NBC axed the show before the second season even began airing.

TNT stepped in to save the show, and that decision, at least creatively, has paid off. Southland fuses procedural crimes with slow-burn serialized storytelling, each season subtly building toward a life-changing encounter, a momentous decision, a ruinous heartbreak. The show views its characters in an incredibly naturalistic and captivating way: Lydia’s pregnancy last season and now motherhood has pushed King’s character into even tighter spaces, just as Cooper’s struggles with addiction have permeated his every action each episode. The addition this season of former One Tree Hill star Chad Michael Murray—now sporting a rather impressive handlebar mustache as Officer Dave Mendoza—threatens to drive another wedge between Sammy and Ben. And the distaste for the job that new recruit Gary Steele (Derek Ray) displays—and his rationale for joining the police force—is a bitter reminder for Cooper of the sacrifices that they’re asked to make every day.

Ultimately, Southland should be celebrated for its complicated and compelling look at the men and women who keep us safe. This is pulse-pounding television, addictive and important, the sort of soul-searching narrative that is all too infrequent in the age of mass-produced popcorn fare.