TV Review: Excellent ‘Southland’ Delivers on High Expectations

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No votes yet Television Rating: 4.0/5.0
Television Rating: 4.0/5.0

CHICAGO – Premiere episodes of ensemble shows like NBC’s nearly-great “Southland” can be a tough nut to crack. How do you interested viewers in a dozen characters in 44 minutes, give them a resolved plot in that same window of time, and intrigue them enough to come back next week? “Southland” expertly does all three. It’s the best new show of 2009.

The saddest thing I thought while watching “Southland” was that it doesn’t feel like an NBC show. The network that was once so vital to the television dramatic writing picture with shows like “St. Elsewhere,” “L.A. Law,” and “ER” has completely fallen behind the pace, giving five hours of primetime a week to Jay Leno this fall.

Photo credit: Richard Foreman/NBC

“Southland” doesn’t quite feel as much like a show of the prime era of NBC as it does a part of the networks that are pushing drama today - basic cable. “Southland” would be right at home on FX, TNT, A&E, or AMC. In other words, it’s pretty damn good.

Trying to step into the gritty shoes of the first show that most people are going to think of when they see it, “The Shield,” can be a tough hill to climb. Of course, no one can say “Southland” is as good as Shawn Ryan’s brilliant program yet, but it’s been cut from a similar cloth, complete with censored profanity, as if you’re watching a movie on network TV. The production value matches most Hollywood films as well.

The one thing that I can’t stress strongly enough regarding the premiere of “Southland” is that you give the show time. The pilot didn’t hook me after one or even two commercial breaks. It takes a little time to find its groove and introduce you to several major characters.

Those characters are led by LAPD rookie Ben Sherman (Ben McKenzie of “The OC”), a fresh-faced newbie who comes from money. Sherman has been partnered with his world-weary, lonely partner John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz). Some of Cooper’s advice to Sherman on their first patrol sounds like its coming from a book of Hollywood cop cliches but Cudlitz is good and McKenzie is borderline great, taking the back seat to his flashier partner and really nailing the emotional final scenes of the premiere.

Photo credit: Richard Foreman/NBC

The “A plot” of the premiere of “Southland” features Sherman and Cooper riding around LA on patrol. At the same time, a young man has been gunned-down by a gang “ABG,” which stands for “Any Body Goes”. Detective Daniel “Sal” Salinger (Michael McGrady), Detective Nate Moretta (Kevin Alejandro), and Detective Sammy Bryant (Shawn Hatosy) head the gang unit investigating.

Meanwhile, Detective Lydia Adams (Regina King) and Detective Russell Clarke (Tom Everett Scott) are working on a case of a missing child. Arija Bareikis and C. Thomas Howell also appear in the premiere.

Got all that straight? It almost might have served the creators of “Southland” to make a two-hour pilot due to the number of characters they were forced to introduce in only one. Ultimately however, executive producers John Wells, Christopher Chulack, and Ann Biderman do a remarkable job of it in little time.

It doesn’t hurt that these talented people (Wells also produced “ER” and “Third Watch”) knew the cardinal rule of ensemble drama - casting. Imagine that first season of “ER” without Anthony Edwards, George Clooney, Noah Wyle, Eriq LaSalle, or Juliana Margulies. You can’t. And the ensemble of “Southland” feels like another one that could produce a star or an Emmy winner or two.

Photo credit: Mitchell Haaseth/NBC

Who will break out? McKenzie is the natural choice but I think that King has been one of the most underrated supporting actresses of the last few years with great work in everything from “Jerry Maguire” to “Ray”. She is fantastic in the premiere, taking what could have been a melodramatic turn and making it completely genuine. Mark my words. If “Southland” finds an audience, King will become a star. It couldn’t happen to a more talented actress.

The rest of the cast feels a little thin right now but there’s potential in the work of Cudlitz, Bareikis, and Hatosy. The question is if that potential will be fulfilled. At the beginning of the year, I was ready to completely write off NBC, especially after the loathsome decision they made with Leno, giving up on scripted programming for one-third of their weeknights. And what did NBC do? They went and got creative. “Kings” and “Southland” are the two most ambitious new shows of the year. And “Southland” is the best.

‘Southland,’ which airs on NBC, stars Ben McKenzie, Michael Cudlitz, Regina King, Tom Everett Scott, Michael McGrady, Shawn Hatosy, Kevin Alejandro, and Arija Bareikis. The show was created by Ann Biderman. The series premieres on Thursday, April 9th, 2009 at 9PM CST. content director Brian Tallerico

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"SOUTHLAND" is and "ER" Ensemble for New Generations

One of the reviews mentioned the brilliant casting of “Southland” and that’s the truth. Coupled with the edge the show has and the feeling that it’s like watching a feature film, this show is one of the best on t.v. It’s like watching the beginning seasons of “ER.” No one should miss it.

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