The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Television Collision: Trailblazing TV: Anticipating Southland’s Return

Written by: Phoebe Raven, CC2K Staff Writer

Tonight will see the return to the airwaves of a TV show which, albeit its fairly short catalog of only 13 aired episodes, has already been through an odyssey and a half (being ungraciously canceled by NBC midway through production, being rescued by TNT, only to be almost canceled again etc). But this stellar entry into television continuity could not be broken and so tonight will see the Season 3 premiere of Southland on TNT at 10/9c and you all better tune in and watch it! I know I will.

One of the resolutions I made for 2011 was to rewatch all the episodes of Southland before the show’s return and I actually kept that resolution (I am quite proud, because I can’t actually remember any of my other resolutions, but by keeping one I am already ahead of most of you guys, right?).
A two day mini-marathon of Southland lies behind me and I came out the other end still impressed with this cop show, even though I usually don’t like cop shows very much. Actually, let me qualify that statement: I don’t like procedural cop shows all that much. In order to pull me in, a cop show has to focus on its characters and not on its crime plots, hence I love Southland, The Wire and Blue Bloods and don’t really care much for all the CSI’s (they only ever give us tiny snippets of the main characters’ stories), Detroit 1-8-7 (a slave to its formula) or Criminal Minds.

Southland is stellar at achieving just what I crave: slowly but steadily revealing insights into its characters, not by lengthy expositional dialog, but by simply portraying them doing their job – and trying to deal with what that does to them. I never thought being a police officer was easy, no matter how cool TV and movies tried to make the job look. Southland, however, achieves at not only making the job look hard albeit satisfying at times, it also succeeds in showing HOW it’s hard, meaning it shines a spotlight on the little things that start to wear on the characters over the years. (No, they don’t forget the big game changers either, it’s TV drama after all.)

For all the pejorative comments you could throw at the show for its mockumentary style (for which then – in turn – you could also have a go at Modern Family), Southland is seldom too “on the nose” about it. I give you one example: Chickie Brown, one of the few female street cops, is seen struggling with the job, her partner, her authority and acceptance by her colleagues over the first two seasons. She not only has to deal with the hardships of being a woman in a male dominated occupation, she also gets stuck with an alcoholic partner, who is a sexist and a sleazeball on top of it.

Even John Cooper, who is so good at training his new partner Ben Sherman – who just got out of the Academy when the show started – by giving him some tough love and even praise when its due, questions whether Chickie still has what it takes to be patrolling the streets. How could she not start to doubt herself faced with all this antagonism? But instead of letting it paralyze her, when it comes down to it, she grabs a hold of all the doubts thrown her way and crushes them by bringing down a serial rapist who impersonated a police officer all by herself in a deserted park at night, shouting at him “I’m the cop!” Dam right you are, girl!

This is a crucial moment for the character of Chickie Brown and it is impossible to miss it as a viewer, and yet Southland doesn’t exploit its own achievement here by lingering on the scene for too long or by adding cheesy music and having Chickie walk back to her car – exhausted, but smiling etc. – and being congratulated by her colleagues. No, Southland simply cuts to the end credits, because if you didn’t get it while Chickie was screaming it, then you won’t get it at all.

What makes Southland so great to watch is that it’s a TV show that doesn’t feel like a TV show half the time. As the viewer you never know what is going to happen before the characters know. There is no foreshadowing, there is no manipulating of the viewers’ emotion by a soundtrack, there is no unnecessary exposition or gentle, neat wrapping-up of episodes. Instead we get to travel alongside people who do their best every day and sometimes fail miserably – just like we do in our lives.

I praised Friday Night Lights for the fact that it is shot entirely on location and on 16 mm hand-held cameras. I will extend a similar praise to Southland, which is also shot on location in L.A. – a great factor in the realism the show gives off – and makes ample use of hand-held footage as well. I am a fan of this technique, because it removes the stale, artificial and “scripted” feeling from a TV show and thereby points ahead to the future. We, as people, have always tried to make our mediums depict “what we see” as realistically as possible: after the still image came the moving image, after black and white came color, after the silent film came the audio film, after 2-D came 3-D.

Well, 3-D may be the future for movies right now – 3-D TV sets are actually not selling as well as many would have projected. But the step forward-thinking TV takes in between (or instead of?) the transition from 2-D to 3-D is to remove the shiny, sparkly sets of old – missing a fourth wall and a ceiling – and replacing it with actual scenery, and removing the cameras on dolly tracks – delivering perfectly straight, steady pictures – and replacing them with hand-held images, which come much closer to the actual way our vision works.

In that regard, shows like Friday Night Lights and Southland are precursors for what’s to come. This isn’t limited to their visual approach either, the writing of both shows is stellar as well. I have babbled about FNL in detail, so let’s just talk about Southland’s writing here: the writers of Southland have the courage for silence, for leaving gaps in the dialog you can interpret whichever way you like. Compare it to when you are riding in a car with someone and you both don’t say anything for a while, just share one glance after a few minutes and then one of you turns on the radio or a cell phone rings. There is no way you can tell what the other one was thinking, all you can do is interpret that moment to the best of your knowledge of yourself, whoever you are in the car with, your relationship to each other and the given situation. There are no right or wrong answers, just what you make of it.

Southland gives us plenty little moments like that. Where a feeling isn’t spelled out, where a character DOESN’T say anything even though you can see they want to, where a conversation that could have gone somewhere meaningful is cut short by the ring of a phone. It’s just like life that way.

There are a lot of things I would like to see happen in Season 3 of Southland, simply because I care about the characters. I would like to see John Cooper get some help for his addiction to pain meds, which somehow I don’t think will happen anytime soon, since he is in denial about the severity of his problem. I would also like to see Ben McKenzie shirtless a lot more, something which Michael Cudlitz (who plays John Cooper) promised me via Twitter he’d see what he could do about.
But mostly I just want to go along for the ride once more.

To all the decision-makers at TNT: thank you so much for having more vision, more guts and more love for television than some of the numb nuts over at NBC!

Now, viewers of television: let us reward TNT, the cast and crew of Southland, and all those who still believe that TV can be awesome if done right by tuning in for the glorious return of Southland, tonight, Tuesday, January 4th, 2011, 10/9c on TNT.