“Too dark” was supposedly NBC’s complaint about the second batch of “Southland” episodes, the brilliant cop drama from John Wells and Ann Biderman. Yet after reviewing season two’s opening hours, “too last-regime” is probably a more valid explanation. This gritty series about L.A. cops does have a niche cable sensibility, but it’s exceptionally well made, with sharply drawn characters and, happily, more intense focus on the best of them in these initial patrols. All told, it’s a bullet NBC — low on ammunition in the wake of Jay Leno’s aborted primetime adventure — could use in its chamber.
To be fair, the Peacock was probably wise in getting cold feet about scheduling “Southland” at 9 p.m. Fridays, where the network’s programmers had inexplicably placed it. And the ratings did dwindle after a promising start last spring.
So NBC punted, and TNT eventually stepped in, doubtless due in part to its shared parentage with Warner Bros. Television. After repeating the existing installments, March 2 marks the kickoff of six originals, with the hope that arc will justify additional production.
While “Southland’s” grim style and teeming cast might not be the easiest sell commercially, it’s clear from the outset that an erosion in quality wasn’t responsible for NBC’s decision. The central duo, in fact, remains in particularly fine form, with Michael Cudlitz as John, the seasoned, surly, pill-popping beat cop breaking in Ben (Ben McKenzie), a son of privilege who wants little more than to earn respect as a policeman.
Meanwhile, detective Lydia King (Regina King) must take on a new partner (“Prison Break’s” Amaury Nolasco) after a shooting has sidelined her old one (Tom Everett Scott), while other detectives begin circling an auto dealership whose owner (“The Wire’s” Wood Harris) might be using the operation as a front for more nefarious activities.
The specifics of the various cases and even the device of flashing back from a scene-setting moment are almost incidental to the atmosphere, from the first hour — involving the search for a missing elderly man — to the second, when a grisly multiple homicide in a suburban neighborhood exacts an emotional toll on the officers.
“Southland” still has a lot of (perhaps too many) moving parts, not all of them equally satisfying. The show never misses a beat, however, whenever Cudlitz and McKenzie are onscreen, yielding crisply played scenes that recall the young cop/streetwise mentor dynamic of Joseph Wambaugh’s “The New Centurions.” And King’s character also finds a more satisfying narrative in these first two hours.
Unfortunately, the program’s tone is somewhat incompatible with TNT’s existing dramas, which could make it difficult to gain the ratings traction necessary to keep these LAPD blues in the black. Then again, “Southland” is a tough place to find happy endings.