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Friday, April 10, 2009

Commercial Interruption: "Southland," bringing the heat or going south?

Sometimes there's just too much television for one Channel Surfing blogger to handle. That's when we need a break to sit back, relax and indulge in some friendly back-and-forth (via email, of course — we don't actually like to speak to one another in person). Bloggers Malavika Jagannathan and Sara Boyd discuss whether or not "Southland" filled "ER's" scrub-covered shoes. While Sara thinks the show held its own, Malavika wonders if it's good enough to be in the same category as an "NYPD Blue" or "Law and Order." But don't call this a catfight quite yet ... mee-ow.

Sara: For 15 years, the 9 p.m. Thursday night timeslot on NBC had been filled with the sights and sounds of County General Hospital and the "ER" cast. When viewers said farewell to a lovable cast of hospital do-gooders, they also became very skeptical of anything that tried to claim its spot and hold the same viewership. But then we were introduced to "Southland." I'll admit, previews for cop drama didn't give me too much hope for the tiny show that could. It had a mostly B-list cast (the most notable, Mr. Ben McKenzie of "The O.C." fame) and it appeared on the surface to be just "another cop show." With the success of shows like "Law and Order," "CSI" and "NYPD Blue," to say the show had a lot riding on its premiere was a clear understatement. Perhaps I had low hopes going in and even a cynical view of how a cop drama could possibly capture the same audience that a beloved hospital show produced. But I was more than pleasantly surprised by "Southland."

The show seemed to stand on its own -- not relying on flashy, big-name actors or too much "shoot-em-up" drama for it to be effective. The premiere was violent and graphic, don't get me wrong, but it also spent a fair amount of time on its character development, giving the viewer enough to care about on the first day, and the desire to come back for seconds. McKenzie plays Ben Sherman, a rookie police officer trying to keep up with his jerk of a training superior. It's a pretty typical set-up, but there's a little hint of mystery in Sherman's past that's only been hinted at thus far. There was more than one scene where I was on edge, clutching couch pillows in suspense, and as a premiere I thought it did a great job of leaving the viewer wanting more. I think it is a little early to truly call this show a hit or miss, but I'm optimistic -- which is a rare feeling for me on Thursday nights.

Malavika, I know you disagree, where did the show miss for you ?

Malavika: OK, admittedly, I was watching the show half-assedly because it definitely lost me after the decomposed-body-being-eaten-by-a-dog shock factor. Can I get an ewwww please?

"Southland" is desperate to be network television's "The Wire" -- you know, the cop show that isn't. From the looks of things, though, it also wants to be "NYPD Blue," "Homicide: Life on the Streets," "The Shield”" and "Crash." Everything about the show screams cable wannabe, from the grittiness to the low camera angles to the bleeped out words. In a way, this is good for NBC. It's not another "Law and Order" clone or a "CSI," but the end result is a hodgepodge of features from other cop shows giving "Southland" a feel that I've seen it all before. Rookie cop trying to feel his way around the job? Rick Schroder from "NYPD Blue." Landing you in the middle of things without a a lot of exposition or background? "The Wire." Graphic scenes and language? Michael Chiklis will kick you if you don't say that's straight out of "The Shield" playbook. Even the final scene -- supposedly a shocking reveal that Michael Cudlitz's character John Cooper hangs out at a gay bar -- is stolen from Season 3 of "The Wire."

Now, truly, I'm not a cop show snob. I've seen so many episodes of "Law and Order" that I can recognize when they're recycling plotlines, yet I continue to watch. I also love John Wells, since he has produced two of my all time faves -- "ER" and "The West Wing," but that's exactly why I was expecting much more from the show. The longevity of "ER" -- which kept me glued until the bitter end -- came from the fact that it was like nothing else on television ever, not just network television, ALL television. No cable network could match it. "Southland," on the other hand, just feels like a network version of so many other police dramas. If it wants to follow the "ER" path, it has to be much more and I just didn't get that sense on Thursday night.

Sara, was there something in particular, other than Benjamin McKenzie's beautiful face, that made you feel connected to the show?

Sara: Perhaps that's part of it, too. After a while I got tired of "ER" and I felt that it began to drag along, limping around until someone took it out back and put it out of its misery. Minus the final episode -- I probably didn't watch the show in years. So on one hand, I was relieved to actually see something new in that timeslot. And just like "ER," I wasn't singing its praises until the third or fourth episode. The fact that I could actually walk away from the first round of "Southland" thinking, "Hmm, this could be a very good show," is promising.

However, I've never been one to get into too much of the police drama. Sure, I watch "Law and Order," but only the "SVU" division, and really only because Elliot Stabler is yum, yum, yummy. I never got into "NYPD Blue" and I've never felt compelled enough to watch "The Shield" or "The Wire." Plus, "CSI" just bugs me. From that standpoint, "Southland" held my attention, it was gripping without feeling phony and it had surprises, which is hard to pull off in this day and age of television viewers. I don't think it's a bad thing to call it "The Wire" for network television -- from what I've been told, that's quite the compliment. The point is, network TV is running every version possible of "CSI" or "Law and Order," and its new dramas are comprised of shows like "Knight Rider" and "Ghost Whisperer." I think "Southland" at least has hope, which is more than I can say for about 90 percent of the new shows today. I like McKenzie's character, sure, but I'm also a big Regina King fan and am interested to see how Shawn Hatosy's Sammy Bryant character develops. Plus, I'm happy knowing there's no threat of seeing Dennis Franz's bare ass.

So MJ, do you think you'll tune in again next week?

Malavika: If I do, it's only because there's nothing else to watch in that timeslot ("Grey's Anatomy?" Puhlease). But, beyond that obligation, I don't feel too compelled to give it another chance.

Judge for yourself: "Southland" airs at 9 p.m. Thursdays on NBC.

What did you think of the new show? Comment now!

-- Sara Boyd, and Malavika Jagannathan,

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