The sad decline of NBC.

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May 13 2009 8:09 PM

Not a Cop Out

Southland is pretty good, and thus temporarily halts the sad decline of NBC.

Ben McKenzie as Ben Sherman. Click image to expand.
Ben McKenzie in Southland

Though certainly not a hit, the new cop show Southland (NBC, Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET) is not a ratings abomination either, much to the vexation of some of us on the TV beat. NBC—soundly established as the fourth-place network, headed by a dude widely believed to be a total clown—is growing more pathetic by the sweeps week. For the TV season currently drawing to a close, its failures include the Knight Rider remake, Crusoe, Kings, My Own Worst Enemy, Kath & Kim, and Chopping Block. In their particular awfulness—in the extravagant crassitude of their conception—these new shows inspired a hostility that needs purging.

To be clear, all of NBC's new shows this season were failures, with the recent exceptions of Parks and Recreation (which continues to get by on good will and second banana Aziz Ansari) and the program under review. These two nonfailures throw a kink in the tale of the network's decline. In announcing plans to give Jay Leno a five-nights-a-week prime-time show, NBC already gave notice that it was shriveling. Why can't it just shrivel up and die? Now that's a story. We're looking for a satisfying emotional climax here.

Alas, Southland is OK. Set in Los Angeles, that paragon of racial harmony and social cohesion, it patrols much the same turf as The Shield and Colors and Training Day and so on. Does it have anything new to say about serving and protecting around those parts? Forget it, Jake. But it says all the old things in a relatively urbane style. Mercifully, it skips the club-music forensic-lab scenes that have turned so many police procedurals into volumes of Now That's What I Call Evidence! It's a character-driven show. One character, taking a screenwriting course in his spare time, even sits in a classroom where the phrase character is story is all-caps'd across a whiteboard. Driving, the characters mostly stay in their lanes, zipping along without any major accidents.

Here, when the hard-drinking macho detective crashes his car and loses his weapon, the pace of the search feels fresh, even if the off-screen retrieval of the gun is too easy. When the divorced female detective tentatively lets her guard down at a dinner date, at least it's Regina King in the part, doing her persuasive tough-but-wounded thing. When the pretty-boy rookie officer endures hazing by his colleagues before earning their respect, at least he is really quite pretty.

Southland goes a little heavy on the heft now and then—the shots of weary eyes in rear-view mirrors, the scene where a white cop bonds with a black kid over a copy of Beloved. At one point, a character's back story rears up all gothiclike, and the show indulges a plot that a telenovela producer would dismiss as risible. Those bits of nonsense are balanced by engaging performances, with actress Emily Bergl earning laughter, some of it wonderfully nervous, as the wiggy spouse of a wound-up cop. She tries to smoke pot in her bathroom and then wonders why her drug-sniffing dog is flipping out. Such are the moments that earn Southland distinction as Might-Or-Might-Not-See TV.

There is another thing people have been saying about Southland (beyond ruing that it is not a career-ending embarrassment for executives who deserve to have their careers ended as embarrassingly as possible). The other thing is that the show feels like a broadcaster's cautious attempt to make a cable drama. Its narrative ambitions aren't negligible, and its tone is ostentatiously edgy. (The dialogue includes curses that the soundtrack bleeps out. Maybe this is a stab at verisimilitude, or maybe Southland, like a seventh-grader, is swearing in an attempt to look cool.) Does the show's relative success foreshadow a niche-market NBC? Could it please go gently now?

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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