After 15 years masterminding “ER,” producer John Wells probably earned the first crack at replacing it, and he didn’t push the envelope premise-wise with “Southland,” an ensemble drama about the thin blue line keeping a lid on Los Angeles’ simmering melting pot. The crisp execution, however, has a decidedly elite-cable feel — a gritty, grainy show reminiscent of director Michael Mann’s work, with a touch of Joseph Wambaugh. NBC’s heady days of Thursday dominance are long gone, but Wells and company have delivered a cop drama with its own racing pulse, albeit for a network that’s uncomfortably close to flatlining.
At the show’s core, in the premiere anyway, sit a pair of patrol cops — fresh-faced rookie Ben Sherman (“The OC’s Ben McKenzie) and his world-weary, anything-to-survive-the-night partner, John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz).
“If you do what they teach you in the academy, you will die,” Cooper tells his charge early on, later prodding him — in what almost sounds like fraternity hazing — to think hard about whether he’s cut out for the gig: “If you don’t think you can handle it, get out now. Do us all a favor.”
Their banter brings to mind Wambaugh’s “The New Centurions,” with the veteran cop conveying that the rules are meant to be broken — the implication being that cops do what they must, recognizing that the city’s good citizens who demand their protection won’t have their backs when push comes to shove. Given L.A.’s thorny history of police brutality, it’s a familiar but unflinching portrait.
The cast extends well beyond that central duo — though beyond Cudlitz, McKenzie and to a lesser degree Regina King, the others have little to showcase them in the pilot — an hour that features plenty of gallows humor and harrowing moments, including a subplot involving a missing child.
Most of the action transpires at night, zeroing in on a dangerous, chaotic world that some will doubtless compare with “The Shield.” In both, there’s a sense of urban chaos — one that suggests the area in question is too vast, and too diverse, for a force of 9,500 cops to handle. Although the cops are flawed, then, the depiction of them remains sympathetic given the thankless task at hand.
Speaking of thankless tasks, after a mostly forgettable run development-wise, NBC has finally begun taking some laudable chances — first conceptually, with “Kings,” and now with the tone on “Southland,” which comes closer to “NYPD Blue” than anything on broadcast TV has in awhile.
Based on the tepid commercial response to “Kings,” the Peacock network appears to have a fundamental problem generating sampling right now, and “Southland” could represent an additional challenge, inasmuch as the narrative hews closer to an arthouse approach than the crime dramas currently prevailing in primetime.
Still, with CBS gambling on the serial “Harper’s Island,” and “Private Practice” having staked out fairly limited turf, for viewers ready to take refuge in a sophisticated copshow, “Southland” could be just what the doctor ordered.