Wednesday, January 5, 2011

TV Episode Review: Southland “Let It Snow”

Southland returned with a fairly low-key episode to start its 2.5th season (are we really counting TNT’s back-end of the abandoned first season of the show as a complete season unto itself?).  The cold open involved a fairly non-compelling car chase which becomes an even less compelling foot race before the show’s trademark freeze frame with voice over kicks in to let us know that good police often get frustrated with the legal system’s limitations and find that they have to “improvise”.  Usually these openings are episode-specific, but I’m holding out hope that this is a thematic through-line for this season; it always makes for compelling television to see how good law enforcement finds ways to beat its own system despite the limitations and bureaucracy.  Some of The Wire’s best moments simply involved Lester and McNulty and the rest of the team growing wide-eyed as they discovered a loophole in the system allowing them to get what they needed.  Having said that, this show’s strengths have been mainly in the form of a very stylized documentary shooting style and richly developed relationships between the main players.  This season certainly opened with a recommitment to those elements; what layers they add atop of that remains to be seen.

But since it’s here for at least an episode, let’s look closer at that improvising.  As the “Let It Snow”s conclusion reveals, the improvisation in this case involves Detective Adams (Regina King, continuing her solid work on this show) and her new partner (who is pretty uninteresting and unlikeable so far, and I mean both the character and Jenny Gago’s performance here) skipping the whole DNA evidence process in favor of ramming a car off the road in order to apprehend a fleeing rape suspect.  He’s most certainly guilty, but when the opening voice over promises “improvisation” from a group of cops who have been portrayed as intelligent, resourceful and whip-smart, I expect something a bit more clever to wrap up the premiere.

For example, the great moment where Officers Sherman and Cooper respond to a gunfight where an officer has been wounded by turning their squad car into a mini-fortress by stripping all the cops available of their bullet proof vests and placing them over the passenger windows of the vehicle to create a shield allowing them to advance on the shooters with full protection and an escape plan for the wounded officer.  It’s a highly original moment for a cop drama and was especially compelling in that the simplicity of the plan seemed completely feasible, logical, and representative of the sort of thinking a seasoned police officer might do in a high pressure situation.  If the other A-story regarding the rapist had some sort of clever work like this, the episode would have been a lot more compelling from start to finish.  Instead I found myself saying “where’s your dog?” to the rapist a few seconds before Adams bothered to ask the same question. 

Sadly, the episode seemed to drag from time to time.  The opening minutes felt especially labored; it’s odd that instead of using a “previously on” catch-up technique, the show felt the need to create meaningless establishing moments to refresh us (or introduce to new viewers) the partnerships on the show:  Adams and new partner Ochoa aren’t getting along, Adams is still attached to her old partner enough to have coffee with him at midday, Sherman is still the eager and healthy youth to Cooper’s weary and semi-paralyzed vet, and Bryant and Moretta are still being boyishly charming while playfully roughing up the gang youths in their territory.  It all amounted to less than eight minutes, but it played really long and really unnecessary.  The show has every reason to want to welcome new viewership; it’s a minor miracle of survival already.  I’m all for them growing a bigger following, but this just felt like a crash course in characters that needlessly kept loyal viewers at arm’s length for too long. 

On the bright side, the show continues to be stellar at creating small, impactful moments of police work that are overlooked on inferior cop dramas.  This episode featured two great ones, the first being the eerily resigned reaction of a murder victim’s father to the news of his son’s death.  Many cop dramas treat these scenes in very traditional fashion by jamming a camera in on the parent’s face to watch the tears fall.  But here we see a man who knew his son was going to die—if not because of his lifestyle as a gang banger then for what he may or may not have done to a very dangerous gang banger’s daughter—and receives the news the way another person might accept word that he’s being called off to war.  He is clearly saddened, but on a much more deep level he seems both resigned to reality and his helplessness against the powers that rule the particular corner of the world he and his family are holed up in.  It was a very simple moment that might have been the most profound of the episode.

Equally small and even more insignificant (but much funnier, because, you know, no dead sons or rape retaliation murders) was the call to a department store that finds Cooper refereeing a battle between a store clerk and a woman angry that she’s going to lose three dollars on a return.  Everyone has watched enough Cops and read enough local news to know that crazy things like this eat up the valuable time of police officers, but this show has a way of sneaking these nice bits in every few episodes to remind us that, like with any job, sometimes it’s death-by-1000-paper-cuts that really demoralizes good police.  Sherman looks mildly amused by the whole scene, but Cooper is in endless pain as it is, and the look on his face as he ponies up three bucks out of his own pocket to shut the two bickering women up is simultaneously funny and sad.

Tonight’s best sequence was easily the shootout scene, although it had disappointingly little to do with any major story.  In isolation, though, it was really nicely executed.  It emerged from a dull scene with a traffic stop and built tension quietly with the call coming over the radio followed quickly by a very distraught officer yelling (I had no idea what he said or that he was radioing FROM the scene) and then quite literally explodes on the viewer first with the sound of powerful automatic weapons (great use of sound effects in the opening moment of the scene) and then the full view of the chaos.  It all happened very quickly and I wish they hadn’t chosen to break the tension with a commercial break, but it was a scene that put the directorial chops of the show on display. 

It felt really good to be back in Southland with the officers and detectives again, but the writers need to ratchet things up pretty quickly here in the coming weeks.  This should be a season where the show finds some firm footing and some story arcs, both major and minor, which live up to the potential of the show’s more stylized elements.  Based on the fairly flat dialogue and lackluster plotlines of this premiere, that isn’t happening fast enough.  It’s obviously too early to worry, but if I were a new viewer I certainly would have left this episode with little more than a shoulder shrug (versus, say, scrambling for my remote to set the DVR for next week).  A show with this many regular characters and a desire to examine something as complex as the challenges and shortcomings of an overwhelmed law enforcement system is a sluggish beast by nature, but I know returning viewers won’t argue with me when I say we’ve seen much, much better than this from the show and are expecting a return to form much sooner than later.

Overall:  6.8/10

Great Quotes, Interesting Moments, What Not and Occasionally What-have-you:

·         The show continues to excel at interesting camera work:  tonight we had some nice lens flares to liven up some actionless scenes, a couple of nicely angled shots to help keep the surroundings the officers work in as a central part of the show’s perspective, and at least one clever shot during a foot chase where the camera briefly dips towards the sidewalk to reveal that the shooter is running over the celebrity stars in the sidewalk.  These little things make this show interesting even when it’s not at its sharpest
·         The pregnancy reveal to close the episode didn’t do much for me—I don’t like their relationship at all, but mainly because I dislike her.  How do other people feel?
·         Cooper’s back pain is actually giving me sympathy pains—he makes it seem very real and VERY severe
·         “Better live pussies than dead heroes” was apparently what passed for sharp dialogue tonight.  Booo.  You’re better than this, Southland.
  • Falling Skies looks intriguing based on the extended look we got tonight during commercials. Tell me if I miss anything, but the preview basically involved District 9 plus The Walking Dead plus V with a splash of War of the Worlds and a sprinkling of Predator.  That’s a lot of “inspiration” for a 2-minute preview


  1. Can't wait for the V premiere review.

  2. I have it DVR'd but haven't watched yet. Plan to get to it tonight. However, I think you know my take on the show: it's pretty uniformly terrible despite tons of potential. I'm hopeful this season represents a turnaround, but I'm also fully prepared to just rip into the premiere full force if it continues to be poor. Either way, I'm looking forward to it:)