The first police-related show I remember watching with regularity was Law & Order. It was the first show other than cartoons or kids’ programs that I would sit through, and it led to many L&O marathons with my father. What I loved about the structure of the show was how it chose to portray time only as it pertained to a single investigation and subsequent trial. No other police work, no juggling cases in the DA’s office—just a single focus, skipping over the interstitial time, to present the facts of the case.
The use of time in Southland is entirely antithetical to the way Law & Order depicted it with regard to criminal investigation and police work—and don’t get me wrong, it fits beautifully. The most conventional plot of every episode almost always involves Lydia and her detective partner, who typically follow one investigation throughout the day, from body or victim to suspect to proof to capture to confession. Southland deftly breaks up that linear convention by piling on the routine stops for beat cops, some silly and frivolous, taking up only a few minutes, others tense and drawn out. But there’s a big difference between the detectives and patrol officers: The latter can go through so much shit during a single day that it’s a minor miracle they get up the next and put on the uniform again.
In one day, Cooper and Lucero get shot at by an improperly subdued suspect in the back of another patrol car, take down a crazy guy with a knife—which is never subsequently addressed, another great hallmark of this insane quotidian work—deal with a kinky librarian, and help a woman trapped under a sightseeing bus. All in a day’s work, right?
Southland has slowly chipped away at Cooper’s resolve and dedication to the job this season. First, his partner leaves without any notice, then Dewey has a heart attack on duty, and now his old TO is a drunken mess yelling about how the force doesn’t give a shit about anyone, chews up its officers and spits them out—though the old guy does have quite a nice boat. Each episode emphasizes Cooper’s solitude away from the job, and how that loneliness will amplify once his inevitable retirement comes. Today, he connects with a woman trapped under a bus.
Cooper doesn’t have anyone in his life outside of work, and maybe this reaches too far, but in that traumatic moment, he became the girl’s father, staying with her through every moment of the fire department rescue, and checking on her status in the hospital. It’s heartwarming and heart wrenching at the same time to see Cooper make that connection, but also know that it’s fleeting and he needs something to live for beyond the badge. When Cooper goes to see his TO, who’s becoming a perpetual fringe character, Cooper fears that he sees himself in a few decades, drinking himself into oblivion, ranting about the old days, and joking, “I almost ate my gun for dinner… tasted like shit.”
Lucero has turned into a fine ride-along buddy for Cooper, able to conduct his work and hold a small amount of interest without overpowering the main character in the car. He’s a funny guy and ironically humorous when he unknowingly tries to set Cooper up with one of his wife’s friends. Their stop to arrest a librarian who gets a little too rough with her one-night stand is a great example of how macabre Southland can be, bookended with Lucero pressing Cooper for details about a phone call while also introducing the setup discussion. Dewey knows John’s identity, as do Sherman and Tang, but Lucero clearly hasn’t caught on yet.
In the opening shot montage of the episode, Lydia wakes up early with her son Christopher on the bed with her. That struck me as odd and dangerous—I’m in my mid-20s and nowhere close to having children, so my guesswork in this are is particularly suspect—but it didn’t sink in until she and Ruben responded to the death of an infant.
Typically, I’ve been wary of the number of cases Lydia has faced over the past season and a half that directly address her life situation at the time. All the pregnancy or child-related cases last season added up quickly, but I thought this one worked because Lydia didn’t immediately come on strong with the indignant, righteous mother act, flying off the handle with aggression like Russell Crowe in L.A. Confidential. Instead, Regina King plays a slow boil, and once she reaches full tilt, the facts of the case undercut her theory. It’s a predictable ending, but the scene at the carousel works so well, and King’s face—while listening to the mother list how her stress caused her to cut corners, and then realizing how closely they mirror Lydia’s own shortcuts in taking care of her son—speaks volumes with only subtle movements. The final shot of the episode, with Lydia in bed with her son, eyes wide open, getting no sleep while allowing Christopher some peace, resonates as dicey on a personal and professional level. Fall asleep and risk disaster, or lose more sleep and slip up on the job. Those are Lydia’s choices without seeking help to raise her son.
Of the three plots, Sammy and Ben draw the short straw this week. Ben juggles Brooke and the painter girl, beginning the day in the shower with the former and ending in another shower with the latter—though the painter’s cousins may begin to make that a bit uncomfortable. But Ben’s playboy lifestyle doesn’t interfere with his commitment to sticking up for Sammy, even if it means flat-out lying to Internal Affairs about the altercation with Tami.
The IA hearing sticks with Sammy all day, as usual with anything related to Tami, and it causes him to pull out of a high-speed chase with a lunatic running across town. That pisses Ben off, always desperate to be the hero. I liked that he got knocked down a peg in a fight this week, thrown down a flight of stairs and knocked out of commission. His ego needs to be put in check so he doesn’t believe in his own invincibility and get truly reckless.
Sammy’s “I give up” moment has been building for a long time, but to see it fizzle in such blasé fashion is a bit of a letdown. I’m tempted to chalk it up to “realism,” to point out that Ben completely losing it wouldn’t make sense, but something about that moment felt severely underplayed. One moment close to the end—Sammy chasing the guy and watching as he hops a few fences, then gets attacked by a violent dog and bleeds to death—nearly saves the plotline, because Sammy’s inaction ends up catching the guy. It’s gruesome, but still hard not to laugh a little at the guys’ misfortune, in a Darwin Awards kind of way.
What worries me most is Sammy’s perpetual depressing tag in the final few minutes of an episode. Last week, he looked damn near suicidal staring at the Los Angeles skyline, and this week, he watches the video of his altercation with Tami, on a video camera he claims to have dropped on the street. The video still shows a fight, not a one-sided assault, and it’s not clear exactly what Sammy sees when he watches it again. Does he see a man lost beyond redemption? Or is he simply trying to figure out which way the IA case and custody battle will swing?
The dark tone of these final moments suggests something dire, and as with Cooper, there doesn’t seem to be an adequate support net to catch these typically strong, courageous officers when they steel themselves during moments of weakness. So much happens to these people in the course of one day. Each episode begins and ends on a day just like any other, with insane crimes and whacked-out citizens terrorizing each other every day, and the cops stepping in, absorbing that psychotic terror, and then somehow coming to terms with all of that pressurized, buried emotion.
- Dewey and Lydia share a nice moment as she and Ruben respond to the infant death call. They don’t get to share the screen often, but it’s nice to see them talk to each other.
- Dewey’s life philosophy in one sentence: “Two tears in a bucket; motherfuck it.”
- Next week: Cooper’s father is dying. We haven’t seen him since “The Winds" in the third season.
- I know she’s living large and doing well on Elementary, but Lucy Liu was fantastic last season. I would gladly watch Cooper & Tang, a 70s-style buddy cop show, for 100+ episodes. Somebody pitch that pilot.
- “My cuffs or… yours?”