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On patrol in the gritty, predictable ‘Southland’

TELEVISION CRITIC

“ER” is barely cold in its grave and John Wells has another show up and running at NBC: “Southland,” which premieres tonight. “From the beaches of Malibu to the streets of East Los Angeles, ‘Southland’ is a fast-moving drama that will take viewers inside the lives of cops, criminals, victims and their families.”

Or at least that’s what it says on the website. And it could very well turn out to be just that, but the pilot seems to prefer a more narrow and predictable slice of Los Angeles, one in which a mostly white police force takes on the crimes of the city’s grittier (read: mostly nonwhite and immigrant) neighborhoods. No Malibu beaches or even swimming pools in the pilot.

We do get Ben Sherman, a rookie so white-bread that he’s played by Ben McKenzie (late of “The O.C.”) and has, apparently, a father in the film business. “You have ‘90210' written all over you,” mocks his tough-talking partner, John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz), and certainly, you can easily picture young Ben lounging at the Peach Pit (though I’m not sure this is what Cooper meant.)

Cooper is one of those rude, crude cops that never seem to go out of style, who makes it his personal mission to harass the newbies and the women (or in this case, the woman, Officer Chickie Brown, played by Arija Bareikis) because he believes that people become, and remain, cops only if they “can’t not be a cop.”

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As they make their way through what Cooper calls “the greatest freak show on Earth,” busting rich kids and investigating horrible smells that lead them to a corpse half eaten by dogs, Cooper is not at all convinced that Sherman is going to make it, and neither, in fact, is Sherman.

Meanwhile, Dets. Nate Moretta (Kevin Alejandro) and Sammy Bryant (Shawn Hatosy) are investigating the drive-by shooting of a young black man by a gang of highly tattooed Latinos. They have plenty of witnesses, just none brave enough to say anything. The boy’s mother, however, has plenty to say -- about the impossibility of raising a young man in Los Angeles where thugs rule the streets.

In another part of town, a young girl has vanished from in front of her house and Dets. Lydia Adams (Regina King) and Russell Clarke (Tom Everett Scott) are greeted by a welter of solicitous friends and neighbors, including one young man who seems to be inordinately informed about the missing girl’s habits.

They all come together in a big set piece that answers the doubts of both Sherman and his hard-to-please partner.

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In theory, “Southland” could turn out to be a rich and textured cross between, say, “Hill Street Blues” and “Crash” with a little “Training Day” on the side, but the pilot, for all its horrific crimes and grimy street scenes, is strangely bland. Not to mention white. Why there’s only one person of color in the main cast of cops and detectives is beyond strange, and that sets up, at least in the pilot, a regrettable color line between the good guys and the bad guys.

Racial politics aside, McKenzie’s rookie is so squishy it’s hard to care if he stays a cop or not, while the idea of him being the son of some director or producer could wind up being brilliant or inserting an unnecessary squirm factor. Cudlitz’s Cooper may have everyone’s back but his brand of obnoxious is far from endearing (I don’t care if it is a defense mechanism), and frankly, it was difficult to keep the rest of the cast straight.

Only King’s Lydia made a memorable impression, mainly because she manages to turn a very L.A. irritation -- streams of ants everywhere! -- into crime solving. Also, her quiet, thoughtful authority makes her the kind of detective you hope will show up if your child gets shot or goes missing.

Otherwise, there isn’t anything here that we haven’t seen before, and L.A. is -- at least in the pilot -- once again confined mostly to its urban core, which seems needlessly limiting. Still, it’s hard to argue with the Wellsian pedigree (“Smith” notwithstanding), so it will be worth watching to see where “Southland” goes. Malibu would be nice, or even, you know, Culver City.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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‘Southland’

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Where: NBC

When: 10 tonight

Rating: TV-14-DLV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and violence)


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