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NBC's Southland: Is there life left in the cop drama?


Southland
, the new John Wells drama premiering Thursday night on NBC, is a first-rate cop drama. The question is whether prime-time network TV needs another cop drama right now given the fact that viewers are far more focused on the economy than big-city crime these days.

Another question might be whether readers need a preview from me given the fact that NBC seemed to have shown virtually every frame of Thursday's night pilot last week during breaks in the finale of ER. Was not the relentless intrusion of promos for this series incredibly annoying? I wonder how many potential viewers NBC drove away with its overkill for the show that would replace ER this week in its Thursday night time period.

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The series is set in Los Angeles, but it could be Baltimore or New York – only with smog and more sunshine.

Not that we see a lot of sun in the pilot. Most of the drama takes place at night on the shift of rookie police officer, Ben Sherman (Ben McKenzie), who is being trained by a hard-core veteran, John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz).

The training is a clever story-telling technique because it allows the veteran cop to socialize the viewer to the culture of the LAPD (and the show) as he lectures Sherman in the front seat of their squad car.

At one point, Cooper describes their night and their jobs as "driving through a sewer in a glass bottom boat," and that is an apt description for what we see.

There is violence, blood and perversion galore: an innocent adolescent wander into the wrong neighborhood and winds riddled with bullets from gang members' guns, a small girl is abducted and the end result is almost to much for a detective to bear, a veteran cop is graphically gunshot, and there is blood everywhere.

The pilot opens on a wailing harmonica and a nightmare scene of bloody bodies being lifted onto stretchers while a young cop looks on dazed and pained.

As I watched, two thoughts dominated. First, how much it was shaped by landmark cop dramas like Homicide: Life on the Street, NYPD Blue and the first season of The Wire when it was epic and great. (And, believe me, I know all about David Simon, the creator of The Wire, saying it wasn't a cop drama, it was a novel for television blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Spare me.)

My second thought: Ten years ago, I would have raved about Southland, but now, what I mainly feel is been there, done that. I wondered whether I had changed, or the genre had burned itself out and this was just another example of the dying embers.

I'll be watching the ratings and studying the entrails of comments to this blog for answers to that last question. Southland premieres at 10 p.m. Thursday on NBC.

(Above: NBC Photo of Ben McKenzie and Michael Cudlitz by Richard Foreman)

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