When Crash won the Oscar for Best Picture back in 2004, it struck me as an excellent example of the slightly deranged and self-indulgent perspective the Academy usually brings to their voting. Not only were they championing a movie about L.A., but they were also voting for a film that suggested depth without actually bothering to deliver any. The film was insubstantial and manipulative, but still somehow appealing, and I always thought it would make a better TV show than a movie. (Apparently, so did the people at Starz, who developed the film into a television series last fall.)
Another Crash in miniature, NBC’s Southland fills the spot vacated by the departed ER and is being billed as a raw and authentic look at L.A. and the cops who police it. Unfolding beneath the scorched light of a pre-apocalyptic City of Angels, where serial killers, gangsters, and celebrity flotsam crisscross the same landscape, Southland is character rather than case-driven. Starring the characterlessly good looking Benjamin McKenzie, who plays rookie cop Benjamin Sherman, we follow the interlocking narratives of about a half-dozen different officers and detectives. Sherman, a child of privilege, is subordinate to his partner, John Cooper, who comes across as a meathead, the sort of guy who’d tell fart jokes at a party. He speaks and moves quickly, trying to impress and frighten Sherman, whom he contemptuously refers to as “Richie Rich” with worldly, impatient cynicism.
On a nocturnal tour through the seamy underbelly of L.A., Cooper handles meth heads and hookers with casual ease, while Sherman sits rigid and humorless in the passenger seat. It’s impossible for the young officer to tell the undercover vice cops from the criminals, and this, of course, is the point. When you enter into the belly of the beast, lines become blurred and morality indistinct.
However, what’s more striking than the show’s philosophical underpinnings is its self-conscious attempt to impose a documentary aesthetic onto a carefully crafted drama. Shots are obscured or framed in an unconventional, kinetic manner meant to suggest we’re participating in an uncensored slice of life. In an attempt at realism, swear words are bleeped out, but after this starts to feel like a distracting gimmick and not an authentic representation of the patios of the street. I suppose the idea is to make us feel like embedded passengers on an unpredictable journey rather than the audience, but the relentless artiness of the technique becomes cloying, and I found myself wishing they would stop trying to impress me.
In spite of this art-school eagerness to please, there’s an appealing lyricism that permeates Southland. When the show starts, its simple script informing us that only 9,800 cops patrol the four million inhabitants of L.A. fills the screen. Surging, masculine music plays in the background, and as sepia-tinted images of the last century of the city’s underworld scroll by, we have the sense of a doomed but noble constabulary marching into an eternal battle. It’s a great opening, one that manages to be simultaneously antique and contemporary.
Many of the show’s scenes are composed with a painterly ambition. When two police officers are about to enter a dark and fetid home, dogs bark dangerously as they knock on the door. As they move through the home, the camera lingers on small, almost arbitrary images—an untended plate of food, a partial glimpse of the frayed fabric on some furniture—before revealing the rotted, half-consumed fingers of a corpse. Watching this unfold, we feel the same sense of dread and inevitability that infused David Fincher’s Se7en. The L.A. these officers inhabit looms over them, and with each step they take it presses closer, threatening to consume them entirely.
As each episode draws to its conclusion, Southland becomes as evocative as a music video. The soundtrack appeals to our melancholy, and slowly, the camera pans over unguarded moments in the lives of the central stories we’ve followed for the last hour: a detective makes love to his fragile wife while their dog watches from the hallway; a stoic detective stands sadly in the kitchen while her elderly mother yells some eccentricity from upstairs; and Cooper sits at bar alone, across from a criminal who was busted earlier in the day—both drinking, both, essentially, the same. It’s not the most profound thing you’re going to see, but like Crash, for a moment or two, it will make you feel something, even if you don’t have to think too hard about it.