The Cheese Fry rather mercilessly mocked the slow, painful death of NBC's one-time juggernaut hit "ER." That show finally went off the air last month, taking its curtain call with a rather ordinary episode that benefited most from a very cool closing CGI shot that at long last showed viewers the exterior of County General:
But we digress.*
"ER" was replaced on the NBC schedule with another John Wells drama: "Southland."
Thursday night (and every other night, for that matter) has been something of a wasteland for NBC for a while now. Not to get too inside baseball on you, but the executives that run NBC have a reputation for, shall we say, being a bit hapless, chasing trends and advertising innovations (see Nissan's starring role in "Heroes") rather than strong stories. That the network is inexplicably giving one hour of primetime every weeknight next fall to Jay Leno - a disaster that will be oh so fun to watch - suggests NBC is sort of throwing in the towel when it comes to cultivating quality dramas. The "Law & Order" franchise is starting to fray around the edges, the showrunners ran "Heroes" right into the ground, and the two vaunted new dramas of 2008, "Knight Rider" and "My Own Worst Enemy," were canceled a long time ago. The NBC dramas that do find some meager success, like "Friday Night Lights" or "Medium," seem to thrive in spite of the network.
As a result, we had very low expectations for "Southland." Just what we need, another cop show. Not enough of those on the air.
And then this creepy title sequence came on.
It's not as gritty as something you'd find on HBO. There's a cheesy Hollywood polish to the characters and the dialogue of the sort you'd expect from the guy who co-produced "The West Wing," a show about what we all wished politics were like, not what they were really like.
That said, the "Southland" producers are doing what they can in a network timeslot to push the envelope. The bloody crimes aren't always solved; in keeping with the post-9/11 interest in antiheroes (see also: "Rescue Me," "The Sopranos," "The Shield"), a lot of the cops are just as messed up as the crooks they chase; the camerawork is loose and appealingly grainy; the action is quite clearly filmed on location on the mean streets of Hollywood (most locations mere blocks from where the Cheese Fry used to live), which add vivid detail of the sort you can't get if you were shooting in Toronto or Long Beach or, egads, North Carolina; and - in the show's most inspired stylistic decision - the dialogue is chock full of four-letter words that are bleeped out as if this were a raw documentary airing on the Sundance Channel. It all works.
Best of all, unlike so many police shows on TV now, "Southland" isn't a procedural. You're not following a crime from execution to arrest to conviction. You're not learning clever legal strategies or seeing cutting-edge forensics in the crime labs. If you want that, there's about 12 shows on CBS waiting for you. This is a show that's instead interested in the weary people who work in law enforcement, who're trying to find the will to carry on, to balance work with life, to make sense of it all. In that way, it's very much like "ER" where the neurotic doctors' foibles were just as important as the exotic medical cases.
"Southland" also employs a rather big sprawling ensemble cast of uniformed cops and plainclothes detectives. Their paths sometimes cross since they seem to work in the same precinct, but not always. You get the sense that they're not all best friends. They're certainly not a team like the CSIers or the minions working for Jack McCoy's office. One episode might feature the patrol cops, another might show only the detectives. This kind of narrative messiness makes the show distinctive. It feels real. You might see your coworker tomorrow, but maybe she's out and you're in a meeting all day. It's that kind of detail that zings.
Plus there's also Regina King, who steals every scene she's in. Has she always been this good?
The show isn't perfect, folks, but it's trying. Which is more than a lot of shows can say. We'll definitely be paying attention, especially since NBC recently picked up the show for a second season. (Maybe the executives aren't so hapless after all.)
Excuse us while we re-watch that title sequence.
* We were big fans of the recent "ER" episode that brought back Doug Ross and Carol Hathaway. Who can resist the tilted-head doctorly charms of George Clooney? Not us. The way Doug and Carol, who live in Seattle now, wound up in the show (the old transplant subplot trick) was fairly clever. Bonus points also for the chat Ross had with some current cast members of "ER" trying to see if they shared any common colleagues at County General. Turns out too much time had passed. Ross didn't know them; he didn't know them. Sniff.
But who could have guessed that the real power of that episode would be the reunion of Dr. Peter Benton and Dr. John Carter? Their prickly, begrudging relationship had been a constant of "ER's" golden age. So there was some real poignancy in seeing them reconnect and share some laughs. It's like having a drink with old friends. The real kicker comes when Benton insisted on supervising Carter's kidney transplant, using his arrogant jackassery in the OR to browbeat a fellow arrogant, jackass doctor (who's the bigger jackass? Benton, of course!) into taking proactive steps that - naturally - helped save Carter from a possibly deadly complication. That's good stuff.