By Ken Tucker
February 24, 2012 at 05:00 AM EST
Doug Hyun
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Southland looks as if it were conceived as a kind of bridge show between network and cable cop series. When it premiered on NBC in 2009, its handheld-camera chase scenes and expletive-bleeped dialogue sent signals to viewers that this was bold and daring, when it might have done better to send out the opposite signals. Because, as it turns out, Southland‘s great strengths are the old-fashioned ones: vivid characterizations and engrossing storytelling.

Canceled by NBC after it aired one season (the network had other things to worry about, such as another highly promoted, low-rated drama, Trauma, and an ill-fated experiment that was sucking up its 10 p.m. hour Monday through Friday: The Jay Leno Show), Southland was picked up by TNT. Its survival spoke as much to the faith executives had in the people behind the show (creator Ann Biderman was an NYPD Blue vet; executive producers John Wells and Christopher Chulack were ER guys) as it did to the people on our screens. The most frequently lauded of those were Regina King, making the streets of Los Angeles safe for nuanced law enforcement as Det. Lydia Adams, and Ben McKenzie, moving from The O.C. to L.A. with ease as rookie cop Ben Sherman.

On TNT, Southland found its groove. It balances neck-snapping perp chases and brutal beat-downs with delicately delineated examinations of the way the cop life can ruin romantic relationships. Now in its fourth season, the series still gets the most out of King’s Adams, who’s trying to hide her pregnancy so that she can remain a money earner for as long as possible. And its best patrol-car teammates are new cast member Lucy Liu as Jessica Tang, an officer of slight build who must constantly prove herself to crooks and colleagues, and Michael Cudlitz’s John Cooper, whose furrowed brow may give off tough-guy intensity even as we know it also signals his past, agonized conflict as a gay man.

If all this sounds grim, well, most of the time it is. But Southland also regularly erupts with humor, such as a recent spate of gleefully poor-taste pranks Ben and partner Sammy Bryant (baby-faced Shawn Hatosy) have pulled on each other. And C. Thomas Howell is invaluable as the less frequently seen but always vastly entertaining officer Dewey Dudek, a braying braggart whose recent turn to sobriety hasn’t prevented him from remaining a dangerously out-of-control doofus.

In a way, Southland is a throwback to older cop shows like Hill Street Blues; issues (sexism, class, alcoholism, and racism) arise naturally from the plots. Thankfully, the closest Southland gets to a “message” is something like the venerable Hill Street maxim “Be careful out there.” A-

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