Two top-notch, under-appreciated cable dramas make their return on Jan. 17, in an unfortunate head-to-head pairing that — if there's any justice in TV land — ought to have DVRs working overtime.

SouthlandcudlitzTNT's "Southland" effortlessly picks up where it left off, including the fallout from Officer John Cooper (the terrific Michael Cudlitz) finally confronting his addiction to painkillers, and his pairing with a new partner, played by Lucy Liu. While that casting initially sounded like a stunt, the character proves intriguing and believable, thanks to the fine writing and deft mix of action, comedy and drama.

More than anything, the series continues to remind me of the movie "The New Centurions," and author Joseph Wambaugh's humanizing take on those who wear the badge. In that regard, there's also a terrific subplot throwing the idealistic young cop played by Ben McKenzie into conflict with a crusty veteran (Lou Diamond Phillips) whose cavalier attitude is essentially to let the animals kill each other.

"Southland" has been a marginal player ratings-wise, perhaps, but it's the best drama on TNT, and really hasn't received the attention it deserves critically speaking. Perhaps that's because the setting Just_301_0329[1]seems far more predictable and familiar than the show really is. In that respect, it's the ultimate triumph of execution over premise.

As for "Justified," the series — already distinguished by Timothy Olyphant's considerable charisma as the tough, contemporary U.S. marshal in the wilds of Kentucky — returns with a terrific new assortment of bad guys, filling the void left by last year's Emmy winner Margo Martindale.

The heavies include Neal McDonough, Mykelti Williamson and a guest shot by Pruitt Taylor Vince, and they're all scary badasses in their own way. And even if the end game remains a little sketchy four episodes in, the show has such a rich, textured feel, it's fine to just sit back and let the action unfold — savoring the individual moments. A perfect example in this batch of episodes is a three-way faceoff that manages to be both tense and extremely funny all at once.

Both series represent a sort of next-evolution of the cop drama, with "Justified" rightly characterized as a kind of modern-day western that highlights the potential viability of that genre (much more so, incidentally, than AMC's "Hell on Wheels," an actual period piece).

Any way you slice it, having these two programs return directly opposite each other is a reminder of how much good stuff there currently is on TV — and why the broadcast nets, aside from their own development shortcomings, have had trouble establishing toeholds at 10 p.m.

 

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