Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Southland, the pilot

The principal cast of SOUTHLAND

Beginning with the Extended, Commercial-Free Premiere Tuesday, Jan. 12, Only on TNT at 10/9c.

I'm a dedicated fan of police dramas and was happy when I learned that TNT had picked up Southland. This is a return to the multiple story line/ensemble cast/detectives and uniforms/intertwined stories format that I first came to love with Hill Street Blues. The series has a solid creative foundation with a strong cast, good stories, and Ann Biderman as the series creator and script writer for some of the episodes, including the pilot. Biderman won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series for an episode of NYPD Blue and wrote the scripts for the films Copycat and Primal Fear.

I was hooked with the opening credits and the hook set with the first scene. As I watched, I realized that coming to TNT was the best thing that could have happened to Southland. Here it can be edgier, grittier. They don't have to insult us by masking obvious words and expressions with annoying bleeps. Well, there is one bleep but it is justified. The show has more freedom to deliver a greater degree of realism than we expect outside of premium channels. Filming on location in LA contributes to the realism and I didn't have difficulty believing that the characters were police.

If this pilot is any indication, the focus is going to be on two characters, rookie patrolman Ben Sherman, played by Ben McKenzie, and black female detective Lydia Adams played by Regina King. McKenzie is excellent as in his role as an officer fresh out of the academy who is working to keep himself tightly controlled. He conveys a lot of emotion with small facial expressions. King's Detective Adams is efficient, effective at her job, and has empathy for victims and survivors.

The other actors are equally solid. Sherman's Training Officer, John Cooper (Micheal Cudlitz) does a good balance as the tough supervisor who cares about the job. He also has some of the best lines in the show. C. Thomas Howell doesn't have much screen time but he plays the obnoxious Officer Billy Dewey wonderfully. Arija Bareikis plays Dewey's long suffering but loyal partner Chickie Brown, who wants to be the first female member of SWAT.

The actors playing the civilians are equally good. In particular, look for Carla Jeffery as Janila, a young black girl who witnessed a shooting. She really pulled the scenes in which she appeared together.

I don't want to give away too much of the stories but here is my look at the first four minutes. No spoilers. At the bottom are links to clips from the show.

Before the opening credits we are told that
Only 9,800 police officers patrol the city of Los Angeles. An area of 500 square miles and 4 million people...
The police are up against formidable odds. There are more of them that there are of us.

The opening credits grab your attention with a haunting pulsing flute and strings beat, maybe a little hypnotic in regularity, that gradually builds. You are looking down the barrel of the revolver of a police officer in an old style uniform in a sepia toned photograph. Other vintage photos follow. The police we are about to see are following in the footsteps of the previous generation of police serving Los Angeles.

The pilot opens on the aftermath of a shooting - it is 1:45 AM and a police officer is being loaded into an ambulance, a body lies on the ground, an agitated crowd mills around held back by police. The only thing you hear is a bluesy harmonica wail, no ambient sounds from the scene. A young police officer emerges, in shock, and approaches the body. Squatting by the body, the background noise kicks in and we are in the action.

A voice-over tells us that the young officer is Ben Sherman who is just finishing phase on of his probationary training and the evening hasn't gone well.

After this riveting opening we go back 18 hours and see Sherman and his training officer, John Cooper, leaving on patrol. Cooper maintains a steady stream of "this is the real world" talk
If you do what they teach you in the academy you will die.

Sherman is tightly controlling his nervousness. Three story lines now emerge:

  • Sherman's first patrol which ends in the action we saw at the beginning.

  • The shooting of a young black boy handled by Dets. Sammy Bryant and Nate Moretta, Southeast Div.

  • The disappearance of a young girl handled by Dets. Lydia Adams and Russell Clarke, Alvarado Station

The action switches between the three stories, introducing the characters,giving us a glimpse of the personal lives of the main characters, and setting us up for future story lines.

This review is based on an advance screener copy sent to me by Warner Bros..

Clips from the pilot
Introducing the detectives from the gang unit in Southeast Division (Windows media format)
Introducing the detectives from the gang unit in Southeast Division (Quick Time)

Introducing Dets. Adams and Clarke (Windows media)
Introducing Dets. Adams and Clarke (Quick Time)

Officer John Cooper and Ben Sherman (Windows media)
Officer John Cooper and Ben Sherman (Quick Time)

The obnoxious Officer Billy Dewey (Windows media)
The obnoxious Officer Billy Dewey (Quick Time)

Great interaction between detectives and the parent of witnesses to a gang shooting, Janila is in purple in the background (Windows media)
Great interaction between detectives and the parent of witnesses to a gang shooting, Janila is in purple in the background (Quick Time)