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'Southland': We're not in the O.C. anymore

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Southland, the series that has gone into ER‘s time period, has one of the more annoying new lead characters of the year. It also has one of the most likable new characters. It’s that kind of show: a mix of the bad and the good.

The bad one is gruff cop John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz), who barks out harsh advice and the sort of streetwise wisdom that comes with embossed exclamation points: “You’re a cop because you don’t know how not to be a cop!” (Dalton Ross remarked that Southland could be called Listen Up, Rookie!)

The good one is rookie cop Ben Sherman (Benjamin McKenzie), who kept his trap shut through most of the premiere and therefore came off like the truly wiser policeman. I know McKenzie is doing a lot of soulful looking into space the way he did on The O.C., but the guy is excellent at soulful gazing. Plus, by the end of the episode, his character proved he could shoot a gun really well — in other words, we know he’s the competent one we’re going to root for.

The rest of Southland played out like a lot of other cop shows. Produced by ER guys John Wells and Christopher Chulack, it was created by Ann Biderman, who wrote some episodes of NYPD Blue, and there was a lot of blue language and NYPD-style grittiness in this Los Angeles-set series. At least one early review compared Southland to The Shield, but Southland doesn’t come close to that show’s hardboiled sheen. It’s more like an all-cop version of another NBC/John Wells series, Third Watch: a collection of subplots about people under duress and in danger, guarded by flawed but ultimately sincere people… except for the corrupt ones.

Southland is certainly well-made and well-cast. Even though his character is obnoxious, Michael Cudlitz portrays Cooper’s obnoxiousness with admirable commitment. The cast includes fine actors such as Regina King and Tom Everett Scott, and, as I said, I like McKenzie’s performance. But both on its own and leading out from the gloriously zany 30 Rock, Southland may not be the show for viewers looking for something both less familiar and less self-consciously “gritty.” I’ll keep watching for at least a few more weeks, to see how the characters develop; will you?

Did you watch? What did you think?