CHICAGO — In a TV season boasting at least half a dozen underappreciated comedies (“The Middle,” “Raising Hope” and “Enlightened” among them), it is far rarer to see a quality drama fall through the cracks. But if ever a series deserved the kind of intense viewer attention normally reserved for a Sunday night on HBO, it would be “Southland,” which began its fifth season in February on TNT.
You don’t see cop shows like this on TV anymore. Stark. Naturalistic. Unafraid to let small moments count just as much as the big ones, sometimes even more.
When “Southland” premiered in 2009 on NBC, it was (and remains) an outlier in a television landscape preoccupied with forensics, elite crime-fighting units and a tunnel-vision narrative recognizable only in Hollywood terms, where there exists a seemingly endless supply of technology, databases and the capacity for deductive reasoning.
“Southland” showed considerable promise its first season on NBC, but it didn’t have ratings. It made the unusual jump to basic cable, where the budgets are inevitably tighter. But on TNT, with a smaller ensemble, a more focused show emerged — one that embraced its reduced scale with clarity and certainty.
To understand its appeal is to recognize what it is not. For all the grim, explicit, cheesy imagery of a typical CBS procedural, “Southland” strips all that away to focus on police work at its most basic. NBC’s “Chicago Fire,” a solid show already, would be smart to emulate this approach.) As smart as it is mordantly funny, it exists somewhere on the spectrum between “Hill Street Blues” and “The Wire,” boosted by a shaky, hand-held-camera aesthetic borrowed from the long-running reality show “Cops.”
What “Southland” understands is that you don’t need elaborate plots. Life is complicated and often absurd, especially in law enforcement — something I’m reminded of every time I see the terrific opening credits, filled with grainy black-and-white archival police photos and that swelling, mournful melody. This is a world that looks very much like our own, where considerable sacrifices are made but strong moral codes and professionalism does not always prevail. These men and women are not immune to big, stupid, messy mistakes — choices made not because they are incompetent (or because they find themselves in a writer-contrived dilemma), but because they are three-dimensional human beings.
Grounded by the wonderfully complicated performances of Michael Cudlitz and Regina King (as longtime department veterans), the people on this show are as lost and messed up as the rest of us, grasping and hoping somehow it all makes sense at the end of the day. More baffling is the lack of Emmy nominations for Cudlitz (brooding and droll and one of the most effective understated performances on television) and King (whose superbly muscled and calm exterior belies a woman with a lifetime of doubts).
It is a show that works hard to be accurate about even minor details. That some patrol officers prefer their short-sleeve uniforms tailored close to their biceps. That wearing short sleeves at all is a privilege rookies must first earn. It is a show that real cops admire for what it gets right. (Retired Virginia law enforcement officer Lee Lofland analyzes the specifics each week on his website The Graveyard Shift, a terrific unofficial companion to the show.)
Just as crucial, “Southland” has the restraint and quiet confidence to allow its action scenes to unfold without juicing the moment with music. The drama is obvious. No manipulation necessary. It is by far the most impressive and humanistic cop show on TV today.