With so many police procedurals on TV, their creators often find gimmicks--serial killer story lines, a detective with seemingly superhuman powers of deduction, police families--to make them stand apart. "Southland" simply relies on quality--in its writing, its direction, its acting.
In the first two episodes of its fifth season (9 p.m. CT Wednesday, TNT; 4 stars out of 4), TV's most underrated cop drama remains gloriously gritty and gimmick-free. Exec producers Ann Biderman, Christopher Chulack and John Wells and their writers continue to deliver compelling new twists to an overdone genre.
The show focuses on the work lives of the detectives and officers of the Los Angeles Police Department, but occasionally looks at their off-duty lives to examine how the job shapes their lives and personalities.
The new season picks up a few months after Season 4 ended, and it appears we'll be getting more glimpses into their private lives. Det. Lydia Adams (Regina King) is struggling as a single mom despite her mother's help with her new baby. "Now I know why babies a shaken," she jokes to her on-the-job partner, married Det. Ruben Robinson (Dorian Missick), who offers her advice on breast-feeding.
Officer Sammy Bryant (Shawn Hatosy) is fighting with his ex-wife (Emily Bergel) over custody of their son. He doesn't get much sympathy from his partner, Officer Ben Sherman (Ben McKenzie), who has won a department award and is allowing success to go to his head. He befriends an ethically shady and badly mustached cop (Chad Michael Murray) who looks like trouble.
Officer John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz) kicked his painkiller addiction, but still can't open up to anyone. He's on the outs with his boyfriend, who wants more out of their relationship than just "banging each other." On the street, he's training a new recruit, Steele (Derek Ray), who served two tours in Afghanistan but isn't wild about his new job.
"If you wanna be liked, you should have been a fireman," Cooper tells Steele in the premiere, which was written by Jonathan Lisco and directed by Chulack.
Cudlitz remains first among equals in this terrific ensemble as far as I'm concerned. Cooper is unable to suffer fools gladly, and I practically cheer when he calls one of them "numbnuts." As wonderfully as Cudlitz delivers lines like that, he also conveys the depth of Cooper's struggles with personal demons and the moral complexities of his job.
Therein lies the strength of "Southland": With its disturbing, on-the-street scenes of police work, the series shows us how its characters wrestle with the difficult ethical questions of how to perform their jobs and the compromises they are forced to make on a daily basis.
It's not always pretty or easy to watch, but "Southland" remains an outstanding hour of appointment TV.
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