"Southland" stands out at first blush for everything that it is not. NBC's latest from John Wells Prods. is a police drama, but it's not a procedural. Nor is it forensics-driven, or built around a single character. It's a cop show about life on the beat in the sprawl of Los Angeles. The action unfolds one incident, one suspect and one fast-food stop at a time. It's "Adam-12" for the 21st century.
"It's a front row seat to the greatest show on Earth," the wisened patrol cop John Cooper tells his rookie partner Ben Sherman in "Southland's" first seg. That's the attitude that "Southland" creator/exec producer Ann Biderman brought to the project after doing months of research and ridealongs with cops and detectives all over greater L.A.
Biderman was enlisted to write the Warner Bros. TV skein by a cold call nearly two years ago from Wells and Christopher Chulack, a longtime Wells collaborator who is showrunner and director for "Southland." Wells and Chulack knew they wanted to do a cop show set in L.A. that emphasized gritty realism and had little in the way of serialized storylines.
At the time, Biderman wasn't looking to return to series TV but she was intrigued by the offer and the chance to "spend a big chunk of time hanging out with cops," she says. Biderman. who earned an Emmy for her work on the first season of "NYPD Blue," had of late focused on features (she wrote Michael Mann's upcoming "Public Enemies") and projects for HBO (she was attached to with the now-defunct Anthony Pellicano project, among others). Her travels with the LAPD sealed her decision.
"I spent time with the vice squad, way out in Pacoima. I went all around with gang homicide detectives. I went out with many, many, many patrol cops from all over -- downtown to Pacific to West L.A., you name it," Biderman says. "I just felt like that was the way to find out if there were stories to tell her. That was the way to find the characters we needed to tell those stories."
The most jarring aspect of her research was coming to grips with the depth of the criminal and societal problems caused by gang activity in Southern California. One of the story threads in the pilot of "Southland" was inspired by her experience of sitting alone in a hospital room with the body of a teenage boy who was a victim of a raging black-versus-Latino gang war. (In the pilot, the boy survives the shooting.)
"Most of the murders that happen in L.A. are gang related. To do an honest portrayal of policing in LA. you can't ignore that," Biderman says. We're not doing 'The Wire,' but we still felt that was an important element. I had never spent time on South-Central, or in the southeast part of L.A. It was disturbing."
Another unusual aspect of "Southland" is that the cop characters have different home bases and may only rarely, if ever, cross paths. Thesp Regina King (pictured right) is a standout in her role as Det. Lydia Adams, an experienced cop who still manages to demonstrate compassion for the people she encounters. But the heart of "Southland" is clearly the rookie-veteran relationship between patrol cops Sherman and Cooper, played with cool understatement by Ben McKenzie and Michael Cudlitz. (Good as those two are already, they have a ways to go before they challenge "Adam 12's" Martin Milner and Kent McCord for Best TV Cops Ever status in my precinct.)
"Southland's" kinetic look and feel is the work of exec producer/helmer Chulack. The goal from the start has been to make the aud "feel like you're with them on patrol," Biderman says. "None of us wanted to do a glammed-up, blue-sky show with shots of waves crashing in Malibu. And I didn’t want to do a show that had people constantly shouting exposition to each other."
Chulack's creative vision has been greatly enabled by cinematographer Jimmi Muro and his skill at manning the Steadicam. To deliver the remaining six episodes in NBC's initial order after the pilot, Biderman recruited two writers who had experience working for Wells: Angela Amato, a former NYC cop who worked on "Third Watch" and is an old friend of Biderman's; and Dee Johnson, an alumnus of "ER."
"Southland" took the Thursday 10 p.m. baton from "ER" after the latter's series finale earlier this month. After two airings with very respectable numbers, the show looks to be a cinch for renewal. Biderman's not worried about the prospect of her show playing at 9 p.m. rather than 10 p.m. next season once Jay Leno begins his 10 p.m. weeknight residency in the fall. The exec producers are mindful of the thin blue line between heavy drama and gratuitous violence or sexual material, Biderman assures. It's all about the characters -- which include the City of Angels, warts and all.
"I'm not interested in the-case-of-the-week mentality," Biderman says. "These characters are so terrific; our cast is so good. I'm just trying to write the best show for them that I can."