Southland Episode 1.1: ‘Pilot’ Review

Posted on April 11, 2009



TVSummary: Simple, straightforward and captivating police drama.
Rating: 8/10

Review Trailer
The quick skinny on the episode.

LA’s finest seen from street level. We’re introduced to patrol of South Central Los Angeles by way of a rookie cop and his training officer. In another neighborhood, a little girl goes missing and we’re witness to the rather perfunctory investigation by two detectives. In a third storyline, two Gangland detectives try to find out which bangers are behind a young boy being shot. While each of the storylines is familiar territory, the matter-of-fact filming style and writing give us a compelling look and let us experience the events in our own way without ramming the “drama” down out throats.

Feature-Length Review after the jump.

Feature-Length Review
The in-depth review.
Feature-Length Review
The in-depth review.

There was a point in the mid-’90s when we didn’t have cable. My best friend and I would watch the 4 or 5 channels available to us, often settling on Channel 13, our local FOX affiliate. Because of our work schedules, we tended to be up throughout most of the night, so we’d get in some prime viewing of bad talk shows. There was also a series on at the time – which I think TNT or TBS is now reairing – called LAPD: Life On the Beat, which we found engrossing. Yes, we didn’t have much else to choose from but it was still intriguing.

The show was essentially a COPS clone that simultaneously pulled duty as a PR initiative of the LAPD. I don’t know if they created it and funded it totally, but they definitely endorsed and participated in it. At the end of every episode, they ran a recruitment spot. It worked hard and effectively at showing us the men and women on duty everyday throughout the city, cops very different from the Rodney King cops we were expected to believe all LAPD officers were.

I mention the show because Southland reminded me of it. The most intriguing thing I noticed right off the bat was that they really just led us right into the day. Yes, they had the stinger in the tease showing us Rookie Ben stunned over a gun-wounded body. But, for the most part, none of the events felt like produced drama. I was quite thankful for that.

When I’d heard what John Wells was working on as a follow-up to ER I was less than thrilled or interested. In fact, up until a couple of months ago, the show was simply called Police. It sounded trite and boring. We’ve seen cops. We’ve seen the realistic style, passed down from the ’70s to Hill Street Blues to NYPD Blue, the Law & Order gift set, and the multitude of other cop shows that have emulated that style for years now. It really sounded like this wasn’t going to offer us anything new.

Frankly, Southland doesn’t. At least, as of this pilot, it hasn’t. The mere fact that the show takes place in L.A. is shorthand for a cop show after the last 20-25 years. But what the show does offer us is the life. It presents it to us in a way that isn’t forced, which serves to make it, no pun intended (okay, perhaps a little intended), very arresting. I found myself transported into the world that, except for a couple of places, didn’t break.

McKenzie gives a good, if unspectacular, performance as Officer Ben Sherman. We know nothing of this guy going into his day and it’s the right way to include us in his story. Often, we’d be presented with scenes of this guy getting ready to go out on patrol – glimpses of his home life, showing him change into uniform, a scene talking with someone in person or over the phone about the adventure he’s starting out on. One need only look at Ethan Hawke’s character in Training Day to get the gist. We actually know nothing of this kid except that he comes from money. It’s a good introduction that allows for his history to unspool for us through the course of events.

Uniformly, the performances by the main cast are good throughout. My one exception is C. Thomas Howell, who has continued to solidify for me that he couldn’t give a good performance if tortured into one. I understand what they were trying to do with his character but it was too broad to feel real. Michael Cudlitz, on the other hand, is superb as John Cooper, Sherman’s training officer. He’s played cops before (not to mention ‘Bob’ in Grosse Pointe Blank), but he really sold the authenticity of his character. Aside from the preachy moment they gave him towards the end of the episode when he talks to Sherman about “being a cop”, I felt as if we were tagging along with a real badge.

I think the type of cases Regina King’s Detective Adams will be investigating will give her a wonderful canvas to play with. She’s an amazingly gifted actress and I look forward to seeing more of her on the show. I found it pretty interesting how mundane her case actually was, in that we got to see a lot of the little things that are often just glossed over for drama’s sake. Yes, the ants were a bit of a forced plot device, as was her clubbing. I’ll forgive both for the time being as the writers’ way to sell the end of the act.

Also of note is Shawn Hatosy. I enjoyed the way his character manipulated his witnesses to get ahead in his case. It wasn’t evil and it wasn’t done entirely without care. I thought the way the character was written in those moments and the way Hatosy played him were honest. I’m not as interested in the story of his home life and his harpy of a wife, but I’ll wait to see more of them before passing judgement.

Overall, I was surprised to find Southland as involving as it was. The storylines weren’t that fresh but it felt like we were right in the thick of it with everyone. I love that the episode was practically devoid of any music cues. I hope that sticks throughout the series; it would be unnecessary for the show this pilot sets up to underscore beats with music.

I’m interested to see where this goes and that is the mark of a good pilot. My only word of advice: Don’t include any voice-over narration in subsequent episodes. Even the bookend bits in this episode didn’t really work for me. Oh, and if you can, don’t let Howell’s cop recover from his shooting.

Posted in: Southland, Television