Tuesday, 31 July 2012

What I've Been Watching: Southland (2009)

A month ago, I picked up Season 1 and 2 of NBC cop drama Southland from Amazon. I’d seen snippets from a random episode late one night on Channel 4 which seemed good, and the fact it starred Ben McKenzie (whom I’m a big fan of from his performance as Ryan on The O.C.), made me decide to get it.
Originally aired April 2009, the show is about the Los Angeles police force, and the show follows patrol officers as well as detectives from the gangs and homicide divisions. Having now watched the first season, which consists of seven episodes, I thought I would share some thoughts on it.

Firstly, it’s a great show. Not as good as HBO’s The Wire, but I honestly think it’s almost as good. Where The Wire focuses on arching stories, such as the first season which focuses on busting a drug dealing operation, Southland is more like a soap opera, as it focuses more on the lives of the characters and less on story, and is much more, well, episodic, in that its stories are fairly self-contained.

The acting is phenomenal, with stand-out performances from McKenzie as a young rookie with a troubled private life, Michael Cudlitz (Band of Brothers) as McKenzie’s mentor with a troubled private life and Regina King (The Boondocks) as strong, independent detective with a, you guessed it, troubled private life. The rest of the ensemble cast give great, memorable performances, leading you to empathise and care for their characters. 
Regina kicks all the arse as Detective Lydia Adams

The writing is strong, especially in regard to the main characters and their interactions, although the plot of each episode can tend to be a little contrived, convoluted or conveniently wrapped up. It’s a cop show, so of course there’s car chases, fist fights and shoot-outs, and these are all effective and exciting. It’s often at its best during the quieter moment, such as the conversations between Cudlitz and McKenzie. Some of the funniest moments are when the pair deals with “crap calls” from oblivious members of the public.
It does have some problems. Due to having such a large cast, the show struggles to balance every character. While it wants to show us the problems in a couple’s relationship, it is only able to communicate this with a ten second shot. 

McKenzie and Cudlitz as officers Sherman and Cooper
This theme of tension permeates the show. Various detectives feel frustration with LA society, from the uneven wealth distribution between the social classes, to the lack of funding for the police, to the unfeeling, unsympathetic actions of the government bureaucracy. This tension is paralleled in their private lives; fathers are estranged from their children, husbands from their wives. One of the most compelling characters, Cudlitz’s Officer John Cooper, embodies this theme: his back-pain mimics his emotional pain of his past and his frustration with dealing with crime in LA.

One of the weakest aspects of the show is how it deals with the criminal element of LA. In The Wire, the narrative follows the lives of the criminals, humanising them, giving them depth and character. You might not like them, but you understand them. Southland only follows the police, so criminals always feel like the other, an opponent that needs to be taken down. The fact that the oft caricatured criminals in the show are uniformly Black or Latino creates an unfortunate sense of racial unease. The show tries to alleviate this by having a Black female cop (King) as a prominent character, a Latino detective, and a black chief of police, but it isn’t enough.

Overall, it is a great show, a real surprise. If you’ve already watched The Wire, then I’d highly recommend giving it a try.

No comments:

Post a Comment