I watch a lot of television.
No, really. Maybe you think I’m joking. The fact is, I want to write television so I watch a lot of it. A lot a lot. Like, imagine how much television you watch and probably double or triple that.
So when I tell you that TNT’s SouthLAnd is the best show on the air right now, you will understand that I, watching as much tv as I watch, must be making a statement that commands attention.
Yes, Justified is great. And Game of Thrones. And Mad Men. But none of them have what Southland has (gonna discontinue the weird capitalization for the purposes of readability) — but before I make my case for Southland over all of these great, great shows, a little backstory.
I am not a “Day One” Southland viewer. When it first premiered on NBC, I expected, like most others did that it would just be another by the numbers cop show. Of course, every few years one cop show comes along that blows out all of the others — Boomtown, The Shield, NYPD Blue… and the ratings on NBC reflected that the audience didn’t show up, but it wasn’t because it was a ‘by the numbers’ cop show. It’s because it wasn’t.
TNT saw that. John Wells is the executive producer (not showrunner though) and he knows a thing or two about delivering quality shows, and Southland was a quality show. In a rare move, TNT picked up the dead show and revived it. Already it was defying the odds by being good, but now it was even more rare that it was given a second chance to thrive.
I didn’t discover the show until its 3rd season, 2 years ago. I was reviewing for Seat42F and I was asked if I’d like to interview Michael Cudlitz and Ben McKenzie for the site and review the season premiere. Naturally I said yes, but that required binging on the first two seasons of the show to get up to speed. Fortunately, because the NBC season was cut short and the first TNT season was also short, I only had to watch about 13 episodes. I blew through them, one after another, compelled by this gripping drama, that dared to bleep out profanity, as if we were watching COPS on Fox rather than sugarcoat the dialog. The stories were about the cops and the crimes were secondary, until it tied directly to character development. It was engrossing, engaging, and I couldn’t get enough.
I interviewed Michael Cudlitz, who plays Officer John Cooper on the show, and was even more impressed. This guy has bounced around a lot, but this was the first time I took notice. His character, a veteran cop put in the position of training “boots,” new recruits who just happened to be gay AND have some lingering health issues was just a ball of complexity. I found Cudlitz himself (It’s hard not to get in the habit of calling him that, since it is his twitter identity) to be smart, funny and really insightful about his character and the show. Most of all, he was so grateful for the chance to play this character, to have the second life of this show on TNT, to be doing great work with great people. If you’ve not followed him on Twitter or Facebook, where he is very present, he’s a one man cheering section for the show, and fans respond. I tweeted him thanks after our interview and he responded in kind AND followed me. It was the first time I was thrilled to have an actor acknowledge my existence.
Okay, I may have a bit of a crush.
So that was my introduction to Southland, binging on the first two seasons in preparation for the third, watching that screener of their third season premiere, and then promptly setting my DVR to record the show every week. One of the best show decisions I’ve ever made.
A few shows have managed the trick of keeping a constant level of quality for the duration of their run. Even fewer have actually managed to GET BETTER as they age. As we learn about the people who populate the world of the show, it’s hard not to get invested. When a major character died in a previous season, it was a huge shock, and not in a ‘Walking Dead’ kind of way — we’d grown with these characters, cared about them, and we don’t want to see them make mistakes or get hurt.
But the best characters are the ones who do make mistakes. I don’t know how the LAPD feels about Southland. By a mile the show is more a testament to their hard work and dedication to the job than anything else, but there are those times when the reality of life as a police officer seeps through the cracks — that reality is what makes the show amazing. The raw honesty. The flaws. In those moments we see beyond their uniforms and see them as human beings. They aren’t eloquent or erudite. They don’t always have the perfect resonant thing to say, and that’s okay. We get the point without anything being said, most of the time.
So this is my plea. I’m not sure the show will get another season. Already actors from the show are signing up for pilots, because the ratings for Southland have been lackluster this year. But next Wednesday night is what could be the series finale. Watch it. You don’t need to have watched all five seasons of the show to enjoy what I promise will be a riveting hour of television in your life. This week was so intense I left fingernail imprints in my palm as I watched. I rarely get engaged with a show to a degree that manifests in physical reaction from me!
I hope that in the next few years people will discover this gem of a show, just as they’ve discovered Arrested Development, Firefly and others which were gone too soon. You might think 5 seasons of Southland should be enough, but their 5 seasons is only 46 episodes. I want more. I probably won’t get more, and I’ll have to cope with that.
In the meantime, I am going to savor this last moment with the cast and crew. Ann Biderman, the creator and showrunner is a new idol of mine. The writers are demi gods. I bow to their ingenuity in turning stories you’ve seen a dozen times on their ear and then again on their other ear. But for once, I will give even more credit to the actors — Cudlitz, McKenzie, Shawn Hatosy, Regina King, C. Thomas Howell and the rest — you’ve done great work and made a fan out of me.
This post was written by Shawna Benson on April 11, 2013