It’s no secret that people love their cop shows. Whether they hail from England (Prime Suspect, Broadchurch), air reruns on almost every channel (Murder, She Wrote) or are entering their historic 21st year (Law and Order: SVU), police procedurals have been among TV's biggest hits for decades now. While this is arguably symtomatic of a larger, more insidious adulation of the police system in America, when you ask people why they love watching cop shows, the answer is usually found in just how familiar and digestible (or, less charitably, formulaic) the shows are. Southland, which premiered on April 9, 2009, and ran on NBC for one season before switching to TNT for four more, was cut from a different cloth. It gave no comforts to its audience; not a single witty catchphrase or a “will they won’t they” romance to keep viewers tuning in. Created by Ann Biederman (NYPD Blue) and executive-produced by John Wells (ER), Southland had more in common with those shows than any other cop show airing at the time. In fact, it’s probably more akin to shows like American Crime, The Wire, and the godfather of all character-driven cop shows, The Shield, in how it was really a portrait of a city in daily chaos, the people who get enwrapped in it, and the systems in place that don’t allow them to escape.
The show's set-up was fairly straightforward. It followed the day-to-day lives of LAPD officers and members of their community. It was the execution, however, that makes it so special. It employed a documentary style, giving viewers the effect of being right in the middle of all the action. Its storylines were less serialized, but did not shy away from dealing with the very real issue of police brutality. A season four storyline involving Lucy Liu’s Officer Tang and a toy gun is particularly maddening to watch. In not lionizing the officers in the show, Southland began to take steps forward in creating a more nuanced, and sadly, realistic portrayal of the role police play in their communities.
One of the great virtues of Southland was how it managed to fold so many “hot topic” issues into its storytelling in such a natural way. Over the course of its five seasons, it delved into issues of addiction, familial strife, and racism. One of its strongest elements was its main character, Officer John Cooper, who was gay and battling a severe painkiller addiction. The show never shied away from depicting Cooper’s spiral into addiction after an on-the-job injury, but it navigated his sexuality in a very specific way. It was never hidden from the audience or the other characters on the show, but it also was not something usually given an overwhelming amount of attention. When it did come into play, it delivered some of the best scenes of the show: heartbreaking moments like when he tries to save a suicidal gay teen from killing himself or when a reunion culminates in his father saying he would rather Cooper had never been born than be gay. Cooper was played by Michael Cudlitz, and it had to have been a challenge. His was a character who barely spoke at all, and certainly never about his pain, but Cudlitz managed to show us the inner turmoil through the subtle use of gestures and body language.
Southland boasted an ensemble that could go toe to toe with any of the great TV dramas, but was Regina King’s Lydia Adams who became the heart and soul of the series. In addition to her recent Oscar win for If Beale Street Could Talk, most viewers are probably more familiar with King’s work on The Leftovers, American Crime, Seven Seconds (the latter two netting her a total of three Emmys) and even her teenage breakthrough on 227. (Not to mention HBO's upcoming Watchmen series, in which King will star.) As a result, it seems Southland often falls through the cracks when discussing the body of work of one of our of best working actors. Which is a shame, because King’s performance on Southland ranks among her best. Her Lydia Adams is such a lived-in, devastatingly real creation. Yes, she exhibits the classic television cop trope: fiercely dedicated to the job, disastrous at a personal life. But the way Lydia moved through her work and life was so un-flashy. Where other characters would hit the bottle or devolve into a melodramatic monologue, Adams just threw her shoulders back and carried on with her day.
There are so many fantastic moments throughout the show's run that involve Lydia. While a tense, climactic shootout with home invaders in season one may be the most memorable, it's the quieter moments that showcase King's greatest gifts as an actor. The small, joyous smiles she lets out when catching up with her injured partner Russell Clarke (Tom Everett Scott) reveal a gentleness (and a real sadness) in Lydia that her job doesn't allow her to express. Early in season one, there’s a scene where Lydia goes to her former boyfriend’s house and tells him she thinks she does want to be a mother after all. When he rebuffs her, Adams chuggs along into her car, quietly defeated. A sequence set to Amy Winehouse’s “Tears Dry On Their Own”, this scene, no more than two minutes, encapsulates what Southland did so well. In a world that is rough, populated by violence, set amongst some of the society’s most abhorrent behavior, a tiny moment of respite arises. Southland allowed for the ugliest moments and the most human grace notes to exist alongside one another for five remarkable seasons, all of which demand your attention.
Stephen Hladik is a freelance culture writer and actor. You can follow him on Twitter @stephen_hladik