Reflecting on the L.A. of Southland

256px-Southland_IntertitleThe critically acclaimed police drama Southland returned to TNT for a fifth season a few weeks ago.  Set in Los Angeles, the program centers on the work and personal lives of several police officers and detectives as they solve crimes and pursue criminals, both small-time and major league.  Most of the action takes place in the seedier areas of the city, although officers occasionally venture into its high rent districts. Southland originally premiered on NBC in April 2009, but the network, after initially renewing the show for a second season, decided to cancel it. NBC executives allegedly nixed it because it was too dark and disturbing. Fortunately, that darkness didn’t bother TNT because Southland is one of the best serial dramas going.

Southland’s cops aren’t heroes; they’re complicated and not altogether likeable people. Some are clearly racist and/or sexist. Others are bullies. Still others walk the fine line of what’s legally permissible. Most wrestle with their own inner demons, be they alcohol or drug addiction, nasty divorces, emotional numbness, depression, or the stress and anxiety that comes along with a job that’s extremely demanding and nearly impossible to do right. As one critic has noted:

A core theme [of the show] is the relentless and almost pointless nature of police work in a place like Los Angeles. Not because every call could turn deadly, though with each one the officers answer we fear that it might. The heaviest punch of Southland comes from its soul-numbing glimpses—seen through a cop’s eyes—of the depths of human nature.

As imperfect and engrossing as the human characters are, it’s the show’s treatment of the city of Los Angeles that truly stands out. This is not the L.A. of shows like Perfect Practice or Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, where everyone is well off and well-coiffed, all the lawns are neatly manicured, and the swimming pools sparkle against a backdrop of palm trees and mountains. The cops of Southland spend little time in those rarefied zip codes. Theirs is the L.A. of seedy little stucco houses and run-down apartment buildings, of decaying city streets and industrial parks, all bathed in the relentless Southern California sun. The show nails the sharp quality of L.A. light, where, to paraphrase Albert Camus, everything is a landmark.* It also nails the ways in which Los Angeles has increasingly become a city of rich and poor, without much of a buffer in between, an American banana republic.** The middle class, including most of the cops themselves, have fled to the distant suburbs for more affordable housing and better schools.

Southland’s Los Angeles is a also place where multiculturalism has run awry, a city of a thousand voices where everyone talks past each other. One recent episode, entitled “Babel,” ends with a white supremacist shooting up a school where immigrants come to learn English. As the cops try to get eyewitness accounts from the survivors, they quickly realize these immigrants speak neither English nor Spanish.  One of the main characters stares blindly at an hysterical older woman who is desperate to tell him what happened but can convey only her emotions to him. As the voice-over narration reminds us: “The LAPD serves four million people speaking over one-hundred languages. Sometimes things get lost in translation.”

Indeed.

Southland airs on Wednesday nights at 10 pm. If you haven’t already watched it, it’s well worth tuning into.

* “No confusion possible; in the sharp light, everything was a landmark.” Albert Camus, The Fall, trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Vintage Books, 1956),  97.

** One recent estimate places the poverty rate for the city of Los Angeles at 25.9%.

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11 thoughts on “Reflecting on the L.A. of Southland

  1. Great post. But…

    Here’s my big question, Michelle: I’ve never seen Southland, and if it’s in its 5th season I hesitate turning it on. Can I jump in the middle, or will I be hopelessly lost if I don’t commit to many weekends of Netflixing seasons 1-4 first?

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  2. NBC executives allegedly nixed it because it was too dark and disturbing.

    Actually, FWIW, they nixed it because it cost too much to produce. This despite being one of the few bright spots in NBC’s dismal ratings at the time. It wasn’t that the network wasn’t making money off it, but that they figured they’d make a lot more money off something that was a lot cheaper to produce, even if it got lower ratings. An NBC exec was quoted in one of the trade magazines as saying they were “programming for margin.” Which, translated from executive means something like “we’re not even trying to make hit shows anymore.”

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    • I’m sure they’ve crunched the numbers on this, but I’m having trouble wrapping my mind around how spending a bit more on a hit show, which brings in viewers for your other less expensive shows, and therefore makes you more money on those, doesn’t beat getting lower ratings for everything.

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      • I guess that the top executives have given up on growth, and are figuring to just harvest things, so to speak. And you could make a good case for an expensive new show, but it’d mean nothing if the execs simply refused to believe.

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        • My understanding is that TNT produces the show on a smaller budget. They did this, in part, by culling down the cast, which has worked out because it allows for more focus on the main four or five characters.

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