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‘Southland’ picks up (on TNT) where it left off (on NBC)

Television Critic

The police drama “Southland,” dropped last fall by NBC already six episodes into production for a second season, begins that unseen season Tuesday night, on TNT.

Although ratings had slipped during its original run, given that that the series had actually been renewed, it’s hard to see its late-term cancellation as anything but a direct result of NBC’s desire to appease Jay Leno, and the five hours of prime-time drama that were burned, for a time, in sacrifice to him.

At the same time, NBC’s original plan to air “Southland” at 9 p.m. was reversed, reportedly on the grounds that it was “too dark and gritty” for the hour. Well, it is dark and gritty, but that’s only to say that the show -- created by Ann Biderman, who also wrote the recent Michael Mann film “Public Enemies” -- is less stylish in its look, more natural in its talk, and less fanciful in its gruesomeness than most other cop shows now airing. (By Jerry Bruckheimer standards it is in fact fairly circumspect.) Watching a series like “CSI: Wherever,” I wonder at the minds of its writers and producers; watching “Southland,” I think more about the actual world they’re striving to portray. And that can indeed be upsetting.

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Like the other series with which executive producer John Wells has been associated -- “Third Watch,” “The West Wing” and “ER,” whose vacated slot “Southland” originally occupied -- this one mixes up the personal and professional, which means that the characters we follow closely are kind of screwed up, unless they are really screwed up. (I assume there are policemen in the world who lead ordinary happy lives -- I hope so, anyway. Possibly they are represented here by all the ones we see walking silently through the background.)

Tonight’s episode, which was to open the second NBC season, follows hard upon the last. Homicide Det. Russell Clarke (Tom Everett Scott), who was shot in the closing seconds of season one, is in the hospital, slowly mending -- too slowly to suit partner Lydia Adams (Regina King), who suddenly finds herself dealing with his too-forward unexpected replacement (Amaury Nolasco). Tough-talking patrolman John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz) is still secretly gay and taking under-the-counter (bought-in-a-bathroom, technically) medication for his back pain. And rich-kid rookie Ben Sherman (Benjamin McKenzie) is taking the next step in his apprenticeship: He gets to drive the prowl car.

The personal business is interesting enough, if here and there inexplicable -- like life, I hear you sigh -- and does help make sense of why the characters act so needy around the office. But what “Southland” does best is to portray police work as a job -- boring, trying, exciting by turns. And, partly by taking advantage of the technologies of reality TV, “Southland” does especially well at putting you inside the action -- chases, mob scenes, shootouts are unusually kinetic and suspenseful and felt for a television show. (But do cops really run this much?)

The series is lean and lithe (without seeming cheap) in ways that might actually help keep it alive, and recognizably itself, in the lower-budget environs of basic cable. Nevertheless, past these six new episodes, its future stays, for the moment, cloudy.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com


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