Southland doesn’t gradually invite viewers into its storylines. Instead, the drama thrusts viewers into the middle of the chaotic world of the Los Angeles Police Department.
And so in “Hats and Bats,” the show’s fifth season premiere, John (Michael Cudlitz) is training a new recruit Gary Steele (guest star Derek Ray). Lydia (Regina King) is back at work after giving birth. Sammy (Shawn Hatosy) is fighting is ex-wife (guest star Emily Bergl) for custody of their son. And fame and the job itself are taking their toll on Ben (Ben McKenzie).
Lucy Liu, in a career-changing performance, brilliantly played John’s partner last season. It’s unclear if Gary will be as intriguing as Liu’s Officer Jessica Tang, who was fascinatingly duplicitous, but his backstory as a veteran who became a cop because it pays well is a good start. “Treat it like a circus,” John tells him about the job.
Last season Lydia was in denial about being pregnant. This season she seems to be in denial about the fact that she had a baby. Southland isn’t afraid to allow its main characters to be unlikeable, and there wasn’t a lot to like about Lydia in the premiere. Any parent of a newborn would be able to relate to her exhaustion and frustration. And it’s great to see the realities of a being a single parent portrayed so authentically. Lydia’s breasts leak. She has to pump in the squad car. “God must have been a man,” she laments. And when she finally gets home at night, she’s not anxious to see her son. The sound of his crying almost makes her turn around.
She also lies to a rape victim to get him to submit to a rape kit. Her lie is awful, and as a viewer you’re left wondering if the ends justified the means. “Detective, you’re a real bitch,” the victim tells Lydia. The case is further proof that the line between good guys and bad guys is always blurred on Southland.
The episode also introduces Chad Michael Murray (One Tree Hill) as Officer Dave Mendoza. We didn’t learn a lot about him, except that he has a very unfortunate mustache. But he’s clearly going to cause trouble for Ben. Southland has a knack for getting unexpected performances out of actors (witness Liu last season) and they’ve already transformed one star of a teen show (McKenzie) into a gritty cop. I’m optimistic they’ll be able to do the same for Murray. But they’ll have to be quick about it. Murray is only on the series for one more episode.
Ben has probably gone through the biggest character transformation. The once wide-eyed rookie cop, who joined the department against his family’s wishes because he wanted to make a difference, now vacillates between indifference and cynicism. He used to care about the people he protected. But now he’s taking phone calls at a victim’s home, reluctant to help a man who is bleeding and hanging out with the wrong type of cop. Again, it’s a brave show that would make one of its leads so callous.
The drama has always treated John’s homosexuality matter-of-factly. This episode was the first real insight viewers got into his relationship. His live-in boyfriend wants more of a commitment, maybe even a family, but John likes things the way they are. By the end of the hour, the boyfriend has moved out. It will be interesting to see if the show continues to delve into John’s personal life.
Southland is easily the best cop drama on TV, and it has thrived since being picked up by TNT after NBC abruptly canceled it. The fifth season is off to a terrific start. I can’t wait to see what happens next.