Michael Cudlitz (left) and Benjamin McKenzie

Michael Cudlitz (left) and Benjamin McKenzie star in "Southland," returning for a third season Tuesday on TNT.

The LAPD drama "Southland" premieres its third season Tuesday, Jan. 4, on TNT, but in its previous two seasons, it has accumulated only 13 episodes -- a normal single short season for many cable shows.

But "Southland" is not your usual cable show. It began life on NBC, producing a pilot and six episodes as a midseason replacement starting in April 2009. It then produced six additional episodes of a 13-episode order for a second season, but NBC canceled the show before any ever aired. TNT then picked up the show and aired the 13 existing episodes, starting in January 2010.

In April, TNT announced it had ordered a 10-episode third season. Returning are Michael Cudlitz as veteran officer John Cooper; Benjamin McKenzie as rookie officer Ben Sherman; Shawn Hatosy as Detective Sammy Bryant; Regina King as Detective Lydia Adams; Tom Everett Scott as Detective Russell Clarke; Michael McGrady as Detective Daniel "Sal" Salinger; Kevin Alejandro as Detective Nate Moretta; and Arija Bareikis as Officer Chickie Brown. Jenny Gago has also joined the cast in the recurring role of Detective Josie Ochoa.

On this chilly late November day on the far eastern end of Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles (which is decidedly not the glamorous stretch of the road that descends to the Pacific Ocean), the cast and crew of "Southland" are working on episode three of that season. Cooper and Sherman are on the scene of a shooting in a small Asian restaurant.

McKenzie emerges from the eatery with fake blood all over his hands. Calling in a few days after the filming, he says, "I was trying to stop the bleeding on a young kid who had been shot by a store owner … (who) thought the kid was trying to rob him, but the kid actually just wanted to use the bathroom.

"I'm in some ways culpable for that, for reasons that I can't quite divulge. But that was episode three, so that'll air … we start Jan. 4, so on Jan. 18, at 10:35 p.m. (ET, PT), you will probably see that scene."

Three episodes into the season, "Southland" is still in familiar territory, but once production gets past episode six, the show moves into uncharted waters.

"We've never shot more than six in a row," says Cudlitz, sitting in the parking lot of a home-improvement store up the street from the restaurant a bit later in the day. "We shot the pilot, and then we shot six more, and then we shot six, and we got canceled by NBC. Regina had joked, 'I'm not going to believe it until we get to episode seven.' We all started laughing, and she said, 'I don't even know if we know how to do an episode seven.' "

King takes a break inside the store, between the hardware and building supplies departments, and says, "I'll call (executive producer) Chris Chulack on the morning of day one, episode seven, and say, 'Can I really come into work today?'

"What's even more hilarious is we're in season three, but we've only shot 16 episodes, including these three." "So," says McKenzie, "episodes seven through 10, that's probably when we'll break out the musical numbers, just do a lot of dancing, in order to celebrate. It may be a little nerve-racking. It may be scary to do 10 episodes. We shall see."

But continued life on TNT came at a cost. Already a lower-budget show than many network dramas because it shot with hand-held digital cameras largely on location (when it is in the studio, says McKenzie, it shoots next to NBC's new LAPD show "Law & Order: Los Angeles"), "Southland" had to tighten its belts a bit more.

"It's been pretty darn smooth," says McKenzie, "especially considering the budget had to come down. We had to shoot the show faster."

As to whether it was lucky that the show had an on-the-fly style to begin with, McKenzie says, "That really has been our saving grace, and the kind of discipline that we instituted early on."

Tighter budgets don't appear to have dampened the cast or crew's enthusiasm.

"Obviously, everybody had to take a reduction in pay," says King. "You feel that. You take it, and you are appreciative. I would say the crew is leaner, so they have to work harder, but everybody's so nice and loves their job -- you don't actually hear them complaining."

"We're excited to be back," says Cudlitz. "I can't even put into words how excited we are."

According to Cudlitz, the LAPD seems pleased as well.

"As far as I know," he says, "they love us. The cops that I talk to -- and I wouldn't expect that the cops that I talk to represent every single cop -- but the officers I've spoken with are extremely happy. I know the chief loves our show."