The suspect is a teenager, a baby-faced black kid out for a joyride in "the Jungle," a high-crime maze in southwest Los Angeles. Two white LAPD cops attempt to pull him over. The teenager, cornered in a cul-de-sac, backs up toward them. One cop panics, accidentally fires a shot and blows out the back window, narrowly missing the driver.
All the variables add up to the calculus of a riot: young black suspect, trigger-happy white cop, inner-city neighborhood. Irate residents shout at the cops and pour out of apartments, dash down the sidewalk, sprint from between buildings. Before the riot ignites, however, other residents on the street, who had witnessed the incident from the beginning and had seen the cameras rolling, explain that the shooting was not real, merely a scene from the television show "Southland."
This kind of authenticity is the hallmark of the show, now midway through its fourth season, which has garnered critical acclaim if moderate ratings for its attention to detail, gritty realism and ability to credibly portray the tribulations of LAPD street cops and detectives. The Wall Street Journal's review of the new season on TNT was headlined: "Does It Get Any Better Than This?"
While much of television is shot in Southern California, "Southland" is one of the few shows that has vividly captured the diversity and the sprawling landscape of Los Angeles. From Bel-Air to Boyle Heights, from Venice to Watts, the show provides viewers with a kaleidoscopic travelogue of the city -- at its best and its worst. There are few sets; most of the shooting is done on the street.
Many television shows use cops behind the camera for crowd control. In "Southland," off-duty cops are on camera. During roll call, in the detective squad room, on the street securing a homicide scene, almost all the cops in the background are cops playing cops. When evidence is collected at crime scenes or bodies are hauled off to the morgue, the show uses off-duty LAPD criminalists or coroner's investigators.
HBO's "The Wire" was a landmark show because of the graphic way it portrayed cops, criminals and killers in inner-city Baltimore. A few other shows, including "NYPD Blue" and "Hill Street Blues," were lauded for attempting to realistically portray officers in and out of the squad room. For the most part, however, television cop shows have strained the bounds of viewers' credulity.
Executive Producer Christopher Chulack had a different vision. "I wanted 'Southland' to feel immediate, like a ride-along, and to make it the closest thing possible to a cop reality show," he said. "We've got real cops out there every day. A lot of times we'll say, 'You guys just do what you normally do and we'll film it.'"
Adding to the sense of realism, the actors playing gangsters are not sent to auditions by their Beverly Hills agents. Most are ex-gangbangers, tatted and menacing, who know how to mad-dog rivals, throw gang signs and dis the cops. During some shoots, the officers who are extras and the gangsters who are extras previously had encounters on the street, which has made for fraught moments.
During one episode, the two actors playing gang detectives careened to a stop on a Boyle Heights street to question a group of extras playing gang members, who quickly surrounded the cops. The off-duty officers soon offered a few suggestions to Chic Daniel, a retired LAPD officer who is the show's technical advisor.
"A few of the guys said the gang cops should immediately have the gangsters turn around with their hands around their heads and then search them," said Daniel. "A few other guys said the cops should make the gangsters sit on the ground and cross their legs so they can't get up and run. Pretty soon the former gang members started offering advice. They said that as soon as the cops pulled up, a few guys who weren't holding dope or guns would run. When the cops chased them, the rest of the guys would split in the other direction. We incorporated all of that, and the end result was we had a very realistic scene."
Before the first season, Daniel put the cast through a weeklong boot camp, where they learned how to cuff a suspect, how to frame a door during a warrant search, how to clear a house. They shot their weapons at the range and went on ride-alongs with officers. The actors hit the weight room and bulked up.
Since its inception, women and minorities have populated the writing staff, which has enabled "Southland" to tell the story of the current-day LAPD, which is no longer a bastion of white males but is now one of the most diverse police forces in the nation. Cheo Hodari Coker, a supervising producer, began his career covering gangster rap for The Times and other publications.
"I've seen the corrupt side of the LAPD, but since I've been involved in this show I've learned to respect a lot of officers I've met on the job," he said. "I used to only think about the guys in their cars who were being stopped. Now I'm also thinking about the cops who are stopping them and the danger they face on the street."
A new dynamic
The first three seasons focused on the relationship between a rookie -- Ben McKenzie, playing Ben Sherman -- and his hard-nosed training officer, John Cooper, played by Michael Cudlitz, a closeted gay who has a bad back and a pain pill habit. During the fourth season, Cooper, released from rehab, is teamed with Jessica Tang, played by Lucy Liu.
The show also features convincing performances by Regina King, who plays a homicide detective, and Shawn Hatosy, an ex-gang officer teamed with Sherman. The driving force of the first three seasons was the testy relationship between Sherman and veteran Cooper. As Cooper tried to teach his young charge the mechanics and the mind set of policing, the viewer learned along with Sherman. The challenge for the fourth season will be to match that dramatic drive.
The verisimilitude of the show and the filming on the street enable actors to get a better feel for their roles, McKenzie said. Shooting was interrupted one day in South Los Angeles when, about a hundred feet from the cameras, a woman burst out of her apartment waving a loaded gun, threatening to shoot her boyfriend. McKenzie arrested a gangbanger in one scene, and he was such a convincing actor that the show wanted to bring him back for another episode. Unfortunately, he was unavailable because he had violated parole and was back in jail.
In one scene, McKenzie shoved his shotgun in his patrol car, muzzle first. An off-duty cop working as an extra told him that if he didn't want to shoot his partner, the shotgun should go butt-first.
"These guys on the set aren't shy," said McKenzie, relaxing in his trailer after a morning of shooting downtown. "Acting is like tennis: You're only as good as the person you're playing against."
For an actor, Cudlitz said, getting the nuances right is easier on "Southland" because when the shooting starts he is surrounded by cops.
"This changes the feeling of a set," said Cudlitz, lingering beside the old Terminal Annex post office building. "You get sucked into a different kind of energy because you pick up things from the people around you. I ask a lot of questions: 'Hey, would I step over the tape here?' 'Would I be starting paperwork now?' Sometimes there are a multitude of answers. But when I hear, 'You'd never do that,' I definitely pay attention."
On many police shows, the females simply impersonate the macho males and miss the complexities and contradictions of being a woman and a cop.
"It's interesting seeing the female extras who are off duty," said King. "They have the command presence, but they're still very much women. They wear mascara, for example. It's the subtle things like this that help me understand how to play a strong woman who is still feminine."
Like a documentary
Most of the shooting is done is sketchy neighborhoods using small, hand-held digital cameras. The documentary feel is enhanced by the abrupt cutting. Because there is no need to build and maintain sets, the production costs are kept at a reasonable level.
The show displays the boredom, the frustration, the terror and the flashes of humor that compose the street cops' daily routine. Unlike many forensic shows in which detectives immediately obtain lab results, these cops, like real LAPD detectives, endure endless waits for DNA results because of the massive backup.
These cops know not to touch a body until a coroner's investigator arrives and how to dab their nostrils with Vicks VapoRub before entering an apartment with a odorous decomp.
The show was created by Chulack and John Wells, both former executive producers of "ER." The show premiered on NBC in 2009. Because of its adult content, "Southland" was designed to be a 10 p.m. show, but NBC consigned it to 9 p.m. Ratings were so-so, and network executives canceled the show six months later, and cable channel TNT immediately picked it up.
"Because of all the reality shows, viewers have a higher standard; they're very aware of something that seems artificial," Wells said "In 'ER,' we'd have one or two people -- maybe a nurse and a physician -- in the background who really did it. We amplified that on "Southland.' We wanted to do something that was real -- and maybe it was a little too real for NBC ... and for some viewers who want a simple black-and-white show: the bad guy has to be stopped and the good guy will stop them."
The show has attracted a loyal following, and a show today, Wells said, can thrive with a smaller audience, as compared with a few decades ago.
"That's why a show like 'Mad Men' can have smaller numbers but is still attractive to a certain kind of advertiser," he said. "They're happy because they know who the audience is. Our show, which has many viewers who are well educated and interested in public affairs, is like that."
A number of LAPD officers are devoted viewers. Some object to the poetic license occasionally taken during investigations but enjoy seeing their friends on TV. Others, like LAPD Det. Robert Bub, who heads the Van Nuys division's homicide unit, appreciate the dark cop humor and the realistic street scenes.
"I remember watching an episode with my wife and a few of the cops were rescuing an officer who was under fire," he said. "They draped their vests over the windows, the driver hunkered down, drove between the injured officer and the shooter, and they made the rescue. My wife asked me if officers would really do something like that. I told her I remember being trained like that in the academy."