TV Review: Southland

Our resident TV expert, Orion editor Jo Gledhill, reviews the US’s latest LAPD drama, Southland. Be warned, this blog contains SPOILERS!

‘Cops are supposed to hold the line between chaos and civilised society. Every now and then chaos gets the upper hand.’

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Southland has to be one of the best cop shows around. Its five seasons chart the world of the LAPD, from drug arrests to cop shootings, addiction to celebrity, capturing the many and varied and often bizarre faces of the City of Angels. Through the genre staple of hand-held cameras and invasive close ups, the show has a mockumentary vibe, but it’s subtle enough to be mostly ignored by the viewer and adds a subconscious realism to a show that is gritty and dark, but also funny and moving.

I love Detective Lydia Adams (Regina King). She’s strong (physically and mentally), honest, warm, loyal – she brings the show to life, moving in a man’s world with no difficulty at all, until she has a baby. We watch her juggle her new and uncomfortable status as a mother with her well-worn role of ‘badass catching bad guys’ – she’s a natural at the latter and seriously struggling with the former. One early morning she takes her son for a stroll – to the park? Her ex-partner asks. No, to a murder scene . . .

Michael Cudlitz’s character – John Cooper – is another winner. He trains the ‘boots’ – new guys – introducing them to the streets, helping them deal with their new power, all the while battling a serious drug addiction born from his chronic and excruciating back pain. As you watch the scenes of him strapping himself into a corset in the morning, moving like an old man through his house, grunting in pain as he gets himself into his uniform, only to race after criminals and throw himself through car windows once he’s on the streets, you really appreciate what a physically destructive job police work can be.

Even when John’s back pain isn’t the focus of the scene, you end up watching his every move and wincing with him. It’s phenomenal acting and writing – only topped by John’s abduction and heart-breaking downfall in the last season.

Detective Sammy Bryant – Shawn Hatosy – is equal parts adorable and infuriating. The relationship between him and his first detective partner is End of Watch-level enjoyable, and when he loses his partner, it’s End of Watch-level sad (if you’ve not seen End of Watch – first, do and second, it’s really, really sad). He takes to fatherhood brilliantly, and is a foil to Lydia and the problems she has. But his ex-wife tries to ruin everything, all the time, in a plot device that might be slightly overplayed.

The only character I never got on with is Officer Ben Sherman. In the first ever episode he shoots a man – it’s perfect shooting. And suddenly the seemingly shy cop is the centre of praise and respect from his fellow officers. The attention goes to his head, and he’s never as likeable again. The first few episodes hint at an intriguing and secret past, where he learned to sharp-shoot and tackle people to the ground, but this is left unfulfilled and, for me, he’s by far the weakest character. Or maybe that’s just because I can’t get his teenage role as Ryan from The OC out of my head.

I know I’ve only written about the characters here, and not the action, but that’s because the characters carry the show. You become more wrapped up in their personal drama than you do in the police work. Yes, there are bad guys and dead guys and mysteries and secrets, but all that fades into the background. Instead, the characters come to the fore, with their broken relationships, dead parents, young children, addictions, flaws, mistakes, health problems, and it’s this that makes Southland stand out from the plethora of cop shows out there.

Southland is currently available to view on Channel 4.

Jo Gledhill is an editor at Orion working with such authors as Charlaine Harris, Tami Hoag and Steve Mosby. She also works closely with TV companies who want to turn fantastic books into fantastic telly.