TV Review: (Final?) Salute 'Southland'

TNT hasn’t said definitively whether Wednesday’s season finale would officially be the last episode of “Southland,” but all indications and body language — including the fact several of its stars have signed on to new projects — suggests that it is.

If that was the last hour (and there will be spoilers ahead), there’s no question it leaves a bad aftertaste — so grim and unsettled as to offer virtually nothing in the way of closure.

Still, we come not to bury but to praise this Peabody-award-winning drama, as well as TNT for giving it renewed life after NBC and a little experiment called “The Jay Leno Show” nearly sent the series to the showers long before now.

Given the LAPD’s lengthy love affair with TV — going back to those Jack Webb staples “Dragnet” and “Adam-12″ — it seemed impossible to bring much new to the table. Yet this John Wells/Warner Bros. drama has to stand as one of the finest copshows ever produced, as well as a series that captured Los Angeles as a backdrop, in all its rich diversity, as few programs (or for that matter, films) ever have.

Plenty of shows have employed shaky hand-held cameras to convey a sense of realism, or rough language (initially bleeped on NBC, but allowed — mostly — on TNT). But “Southland’s” strength came from its central characters — the stalwarts being Michael Cudlitz, Ben McKenzie, Regina King and Shawn Hatosy, as others came and went.

NBC labeled the show “too dark,” and as Wednesday’s episode drove home with what felt like a vengeance, watching it is often no picnic. At its best, though, “Southland” has mixed the texture of the Joseph Wambaugh adaptation “The New Centurions” (particularly in its initial years, with Cudlitz’s character mentoring McKenzie’s rookie cop) with the mix of gallows humor and drama that characterized “NYPD Blue,” which was perceived as the last word on groundbreaking police dramas when it premiered 20 years ago. (Seriously, where did the time go?)

As for the finale, given the likelihood going in that this was the end, the producers did their audience no favors — driving a rift between two professional partners, setting up the promise of an unexpected relationship, and (worst of all) leaving the show’s centerpiece at best hovering near death.

Some fans will no doubt howl for more, but networks aren’t charitable enterprises, and the ratings this season have been subpar by TNT’s standards. So if there’s a silver lining here, it’s the final “Southland” was emblematic of a series that, creatively speaking, appears to have gone out the way it operated — on its own terms, making no allowances for those who might call it “too dark,” too depressing or too inaccessible to deliver commercially.

In that sense, the show leaves behind one lingering message that has ultimately been its defining theme: Sure, s–t happens, but for the LAPD life goes on, even if we (or in this case, the show) might not be around to see it.

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