This article originally appeared on ramp.ie on April 29th 2013
Southland may be the most under-appreciated show on television of the last five years. It is an absolute miracle that it has managed to survive for so long, with consistently small viewing figures and little coverage in the media. The limited attention it does get though is nearly unanimously positive, and deservedly so. With its fifth season, Southland continued to prove itself a cut above just about every other cop show, bar perhaps The Wire and The Shield.
The show originally aired on NBC with a short, seven-episode season and was quickly renewed. Before the second season even aired, NBC decided they wanted nothing more to do with it and for a time it seemed like Southland had been unfairly and prematurely terminated. Luckily, TNT stepped in and scooped it up and since then has acted has a stable and supportive caretaker.
What sets Southland apart in a very crowded genre is in its uncompromising ability to immerse the viewer. It uses an almost handheld camera style of shooting, stripping away any sense of sophisticated cinematography in order create a sense of closeness and intimacy. It’s both a very simple and complicated approach but one that allows the show a totally unique visual identity and gives the viewer a feeling of very real placement within each scene that is incredibly powerful.
Of course these production elements aren’t the only factor in Southland’s dramatic prowess. Throughout the course of each episode, we’re given insight into the daily lives of a core cast of beat cops and detectives, and the horrible situations they’re forced to deal with all too often. Southland doesn’t try to glamorise law enforcement; rather, it paints a brutally honest picture, showing the long-term, personal effects an intense job can have on the psyche of an individual. It is completely unflinching in its portrayal, unafraid to explore any area of human depravity. In retrospect, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise NBC decided to abandon the show so quickly; clearly they didn’t know what they were getting themselves into. And really, it worked out for the better; likely it would have been hamstrung by American television restrictions had it remained a network show.
Southland very cleverly blends the standalone procedural with the best aspects of serialised drama. Each episode is usually a series of vignettes, sometimes with no obvious connective tissue. In this context alone they work terrifically. Generally though, there is a thematic thread running through each of them and the links are there if the viewer is willing to dig a little deeper. This structure remained in place and very much effective for the fifth season.
Early on in the show’s lifespan, rookie officer Ben Sherman was positioned as its main character but over the years, the emphasis on him has lessened, and a more even, ensemble approach opted for. Sherman still had his fair share of screen time this year, with a fairly compelling arc once again showcasing his considerable flaws. It certainly wasn’t the highlight of the season but it was engaging enough viewing, even if it seemed to be retreading familiar ground. His partner Sammy Bryant struggled to keep custody of his young child in a similarly enjoyable plot; it was however, often undercut by his ex-wife being one of the most infuriating characters in television history, reaching the point where her mere presence on screen was enough to ruin a scene. Thankfully she recurred less and less as the season went on.
Detective Lydia Adams, in an interesting contrast to Bryant, struggled with her position as a mother but not in the way usually presented. She struggled not only with how to be a mother to her son but more crucially, whether she even wanted to continue being one. It’s a nice twist on a tired formula and an interesting commentary on whether or not everyone is supposed to be a parent. The way in which a lot of her cases inevitably tied into her own motherhood issues did end being a little overused but definitely not to extent that it damaged her development too badly. Lydia’s partner Robinson, introduced last season, continued to be the secret best character on the show.
Without a doubt, veteran cop John Cooper’s multi-episode struggle to prevent his retired past colleague, played by the ever awesome Gerald McRainey, from self-destructing was the best handled character arc. Hicks represented a possible future version of Cooper himself, the committed yet shattered officer ultimately left to wallow in self pity and die a lonely, unceremonious death. It was a bleak and deeply affecting plot line, fantastically well acted. Cooper’s relationship with his new patrol pairing Hank Luceo acted as a catalyst for many of the season’s best moments. While their interactions didn’t exceed last year’s perfect guest casting of Lucy Liu, the strain between the two made for fascinating viewing, especially in relation to a late season episode which surely ranks as one of the most terrifying and shocking in all of television; and that’s saying something considering some of the supremely disturbing material Southland has dealt with in the past.
Five years on, Southland remains as brutally hard hitting and fresh as it was when it first débuted. Very few other long-running dramas can brag of a similar achievement. There’s still plenty left to explore here and it would be a terrible shame were it not given the opportunity to finish on its own terms, its future currently uncertain. As of now though, Southland celebrates its five year anniversary with yet another fantastic season of television, solidifying its position once more as one of the all time great police dramas.