Saturday, April 20, 2013

SOUTHLAND: If It's Gone, It Won't Soon Be Forgotten

It costs a heap of money to produce, with its sprawling cast and multiple locations each week. Its ratings have been consistent, as in consistently weak and disappointing. At least three series regulars – Regina King, Ben McKenzie and Shawn Hatosy – already have attached their names to new network pilots.

The handwriting isn't exactly spray-painted on a West Hollywood wall for Southland, TV's finest cop drama of its era, but the message is clear. This Wednesday at 10 p.m. EST, TNT is airing an NBA playoff game between the Lakers and Spurs. Whether Southland ever returns to claim that time slot for its sixth season is entirely up to the Turner division's braintrust. And for fans of the series – a small but hardy group – the catchphrase "We Know Drama" will take on special meaning until TNT makes its decision.

Frankly, it doesn't look good. TNT canceled Leverage last Christmas after five seasons, and its ratings were relatively spectacular. On the other hand, as Southland diehards know well, the show has survived certain death before: When NBC, its original network, canceled the series after two seasons, TNT deemed its overall quality worthy enough to rescue it from the primetime scrap heap.
Michael Cudlitz, Gerald McRaney. (Turner/Doug Hyun)

If this does prove to be end of watch for Southland, however, it has gone out with more bang than a drive-by shooting. The climactic scene three weeks ago between LAPD patrolman John Cooper (the phenomenal Michael Cudlitz) and his alcoholic, potentially suicidal mentor (played by Gerald McRaney) was so emotionally raw and visceral that I replayed it on my DVR at least three times. Honestly, I never knew McRaney was that fine an actor. Riveting work.

That scene, however, was nothing compared to the second-to-last episode, "Chaos," in which Cooper and his partner Lucero (Anthony Ruivivar) are ambushed by a pair of bloodthirsty meth tweakers, held hostage and stripped of their uniforms, weapons and dignity, bound in their underwear as their captors torment them. If you saw it, you're probably still thinking about it. Many viewers proclaimed "Chaos" the most wrenching and unforgettable hour of television they've seen in years. I'd be hard-pressed to disagree.

Cudlitz has been a revelation. As John Cooper, he's a bully, a hero, a street philosopher, a scoundrel – and oh, BTW, he's gay and languishing in the closet. His performances have been constantly challenging and utterly fascinating. How can this guy not win an Emmy? How much you want to bet that Cudlitz doesn't even get nominated?
Lucero and Cooper, in a Real Bind. (Turner/Doug Hyun)
But Cudlitz wasn't Southland's lone ranger. McKenzie's decorated Officer Ben Sherman, who ended the season's 10th and final episode, "Reckoning," in a vicious fistfight with his partner (Hatosy), continuously walked a tenuous tightrope between good and evil. And King's richly-layered Det. Lydia Adams ended this arc balancing motherhood and a mismatched partner while investigating the kidnappings of Cooper and Lucero.

Following in the heritage of great police dramas like Hill Street Blues, Homicide: Life on the Street, The Shield and The Wire, Southland reminded us graphically, sometimes brutally, that cops' lives are jacked up, too – maybe far more than ours because of what their jobs force them to endure every single day. As Cooper is told in the final scene of "Reckoning," "Just because you're a cop doesn't make you any less of an a--hole."

It's probably no spoiler by now to say "Reckoning" ends with Cooper on his back in an alley, bleeding from multiple gunshot wounds fired by fellow LAPD officers when he refused to lay down his gun, fighting for his life – or was he? Could this have been "suicide by cop?"

It made for a perfect ending. If Southland returns for a sixth season, we'll see Cooper recuperating in bed, painfully reassessing his life. (Personally, I cannot imagine the series continuing without him.) If it doesn't, this tortured soul went out in a hail of glory and put a shocking 10-7 on a breakneck five-year ride.

It's been an amazing season. Shaq was a guest star. And if it winds up being the last, lovers of great drama still should rise and give thanks to TNT for giving us more Southland than we had any logical reason to expect.