In my review of the season premiere, I noted that I wouldn’t be writing about Southland every week and in general, I intend to stick to that suggestion. But last night’s episode was just so damn good that I couldn’t help but discuss just a bit.
As so many critics and other folks have noted, the best part of the program are the patrol cops played by Ben McKenzie and Michael Cudlitz. There’s always a lot going on with Southland, but when the attention turns to them, the series gets a hop in its step and a lot more likable. This week’s episode thankfully spends a lot of time on these two guys, particularly McKenzie’s Ben Sherman. And even though the full impact of the plot hangs on whether or not you remember a small detail from the short first season that aired almost two years ago, McKenzie’s fantastic work carries it pretty far without that knowledge.
Yeah, so if you remember from way early on in the series, Ben Sherman’s mother was raped a long time ago and during the rape Ben was also assaulted. The guy eventually went to jail, but it’s more or less the moment that Ben decided to become a police officer. Unfortunately, the rapist is now out of prison and Ben starts using his position to his advantage. Ben stalks the guy, irrationally pulls him over and threatens his life and generally makes an ass out of himself and the department.
This is a completely boilerplate sort of story. Oh no, it’s a cop with a personal vendetta! But because McKenzie is not only so perfect for this role but most importantly perfect for this specific kind of story, Sherman’s story in “Discretion” works perfectly. I think McKenzie has certainly improved as an actor throughout his time on The OC and now here, but sometimes you have to dance with what brought you, and for McKenzie that’s looking steely off into the distance, full of intensity, before finally snapping and punching someone. When it does that here, it just feels like home. It doesn’t take away from the fact that McKenzie is more versatile than he was early on in The OC, it just emphasizes that the things he’s always been good at, he’s really, really good at now.
And even though his character didn’t have a whole lot to do in the episode, Cudlitz’s John Cooper is there for the big moments, the times when Sherman really needs to be set straight. Their professional relationship has obviously become something more and although we haven’t a lot of them together after hours, Cooper’s speech to him about doing the right thing and not screwing away either of their futures is the right combination of tough love and legitimate concern.
Finally, I wanted to point out another really good performance that’s carried over the last few episodes. McKenzie, Cudlitz and Regina King get most of the praise as far as performances go, but Shawn Hatosy has been especially solid this season as his character’s personal life crumbles around him. I never cared for the character’s wife and so it never really mattered to me when they bickered about having a life together. But now that the wife has cheated on him and things are falling apart, Hatosy’s playing Sammy with a frantic mix of resolve, anger and confusion and it’s simply a delight to watch. Plus, it’s just so easy to hate the wife character that rooting for Sammy becomes like second nature. Smart move by the writers there.
I know I’m biased since I love McKenzie, but this is most definitely my favorite episode of Southland ever. It spends a lot more time showing us how the job affects the personal lives of these police officers instead of worrying about random cases that end up bringing a number of the cast members together. It’s less scattered, more focused and more emotionally hefty. More of this please.