By Ken Tucker
February 13, 2013 at 12:00 PM EST
Doug Hyun/TNT

— –

Doug Hyun/TNT

Southland returned for its fifth season on Wednesday night energetically unrepentant: This is a cop saga at once deeply satisfying (its roots in the best tradition of the oldest, most sere TV police procedurals, such as Dragnet and Naked City) yet stubbornly determined to unsettle viewers with stark frankness and emotionalism.

The premiere moved along a few familiar storylines. Regina King’s Lydia Adams is coping with single-motherhood, a new infant, and the child-care help of her mother so that Lydia can still chase down fleeing suspects. Michael Cudlitz’s John Cooper is struggling with the demands of his lover to make their relationship more permanent (his boyfriend goes so far as to suggest they acquire “kids” — is the compulsively blunt Cooper remotely ready for fatherhood?). Ben McKenzie’s Ben Sherman was shown grappling one again with the fate of being both a good cop and good-looking: Attention comes his way even when he doesn’t want it. And perrennially beleaguered Sammy (the terrific Shawn Hatosy) is still taking grief from his angry, eccentric ex, Tammi (applause for Emily Bergl, fearless about making her character belligerently, stupidly self-righteous

Wednesday night’s premiere — in which Chad Michael Murray popped up for a story arc that finds him sporting a crewcut ‘n’ cop ‘stache that makes him look like a cross between Jim Carrey and Deep Throat star Harry Reems — had a number of striking set-pieces that will pay off next week in an episode that is, if anything, even better. Both of these hours combine to create exciting, heart-wrenching television; it is the achievement of creator Ann Biderman and her crew that, again and again, the mood in any given scene switches from rancor to humor to tragedy with remarkable, utterly convincing, speed. Just handling that subplot of the young man who was raped — there were so many elements in play (his pride; Lydia’s high-minded deviousness in getting him to use the rape kit), the economy in the storytelling, yet the expansiveness of the behaviors elicited, was impressive.

If Southland was on FX or AMC, I get the feeling it would be receiving more attention from viewers and awards groups (critics and a strong cult have remained loyal). Indeed, I think my dream two-hour drama block would be an episode of Justified polished off by a swift edition of Southland.

Yes, I know you’re just getting hooked on The Americans. But we should be very glad and grateful Southland is back; I urge you to program your DVR for a season pass.

Twitter: @kentucker