Southland returns to TNT for its third season premiere tonight. The show has made a name for itself as a hard, no-compromise cop drama that doesn't shy away from brutal crimes and honest characters. In stark contrast to lighter fare on both network and cable TV, Southland aims to bring the audience on a ride-along with the beat cops and detectives of the LAPD, showing every tense moment and hard choice. (which may be why it made the jump to cable last year.) The season 3 premiere of Southland delivers on the points that made the previous two seasons excel: showing the monotony, frustration and occasional terror that police experience in a city rife with gang violence and apathy.
The synopsis, courtesy of TNT:
SOUTHLAND Season 3 Episode 1 “Let It Snow” – Detective Lydia Adams (Regina King) endures a stressful adjustment period with her new partner, Josie Ochoa (Jenny Gago), as they investigate the disappearance of an illegal immigrant. Detective Russell Clarke (Tom Everett Scott), Lydia’s former partner, adjusts to a new desk job on the force. Meanwhile, Detectives Sammy Bryant (Shawn Hatosy) and Nate Moretta (Kevin Alejandro) look for the killer of two gangbangers and Officer Ben Sherman (Ben McKenzie) catches the eye of an attractive woman during a traffic stop, while his partner, John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz), struggles with increasing pain.
The show treads familiar ground as the story follows the disconnected story lines. Those who tune in for the unflinching looks at street-level violence won't be disappointed, though those looking for more development after season 2's finale may find the first new episode a little lacking.
Cooper's continuing injury is the most prevalent theme of the beat cops' plot, and his developing addiction to his pain meds becomes problematic. The show follows along as he and Sherman start a typical day of traffic control. When Cooper needs a moment to try and augment his medication supply, he assigns the junior officer a trivial traffic stop. Sherman pulls the speeding Porche over, but in a predictable move lets the attractive and showy female driver off with a warning. The scene feels forced and more than a little stereotypical - how many times have we seen a hot woman talk her way out of a ticket? - but serves to show Sherman's own moral failings as he tries to convince Cooper to seek help.
From here the two are called to a shooting and we're treated to an excellent action set piece. There isn't a lot of set up; bad guys have automatic rifles, a cop is down and Cooper and Sherman are under fire. Southland manages to show off an impressive bit of screenwriting as the cops pull out some unconventional tricks to rescue the fallen officer and take down the suspects. The scene is tense and tight, with exactly the right amount of action and restraint, making for the best part of the episode by far. After the crescendo, the two accompany the downed man to the hospital where Cooper tries to convince his estranged wife to grant him more medications and Sherman (rather inexplicably) comes across the woman in the Porche again.
Detective Adams remains the upright and uncompromising investigator, but her new partner puts her off balance. Southland newcomer Jenny Gago delivers a sympathetic and believable performance as detective Ochoa. The two are a microcosm of the tense relationship between Latinos and African-Americans in the city, a contrast that the show isn't shy about showing off as the pair investigate the disappearance of an illegal immigrant who is raped and murdered at her workplace. There's an excellent scene as the two are driving to a suspect's home that tells you everything you need to know about the new detective in a few short moments. The dialogue in this exchange shines. The animosity between the two is palpable while being subtle, even as their contrasting skills allow them to close in on the suspect. The women's storyline proves to be the most compelling of the episode, as both are dealing with stressful home life while following the viscous deeds of their quarry.
The third sub-plot, following detectives Hatosy and Moretta, is dry and relatively uninteresting. Two gang members found murdered under a bridge are found to have raped the daughter of another powerful gang member. Aside from some tense moments while apprehending the suspect, this storyline left a lot of potential on the editing room floor. There's no sympathy for the murder victims, there's no sympathy for the violated girl - everything here is disappointingly procedural. Even the normally solid cinematography seems to take a dive, as several shots cross the line from cinema verite to downright bad camerawork. All in all, this one should have bee nleft alone to give the audience more time with the other two teams.
It's worth noting that series regulars Arija Bareikis and Tom Everett Scott barely make an appearance in the premiere. They aren't really missed; there's enough solid action and dialogue going on that their absence goes largely unnoticed. But this could be an indication that there characters will be taking a backseat this season. If that means more screen time for Cooper and Ochoa, the third season is shaping up to be a memorable one.
All in all, "Let it Snow" is a solid return for Southland. It delivers on the points that make it a favorite for those who want more gritty realism than the likes of Law and Order can provide. Excellent pacing and storytelling allow the show to clip along, with only a couple of sore spots. The police drama isn't always completely accurate, but seems to nail the feel of LAPD life down pat. Characters develop on a slow burn that doesn't get in the way of the action. If this episode is an indication of things to come, viewers will be delighted with the new season.