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L.a. Blues

City streets and some real cops and robbers costar in TNT's gritty series 'Southland.'

March 04, 2012|Miles Corwin | Corwin, a former Times reporter, has written two nonfiction books about LAPD homicide detectives. His crime novel, "Midnight Alley," will be released in April
  • Actress Lucy Liu, center, talks with director and executive producer Christopher Chulack, right, with her on-screen partner Michael Cudlitz, left, between scenes at a car wash in Los Angeles for "Southland."
Actress Lucy Liu, center, talks with director and executive producer Christopher… (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles…)

The suspect is a teenager, a baby-faced black kid out for a joyride in "the Jungle," a high-crime maze in southwest Los Angeles. Two white LAPD cops attempt to pull him over. The teenager, cornered in a cul-de-sac, backs up toward them. One cop panics, accidentally fires a shot and blows out the back window, narrowly missing the driver.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, March 05, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
"Southland": An article in the March 4 Sunday Calendar section about the TV series "Southland" said the show was created by Christopher Chulack and John Wells. Ann Biderman created the show.

All the variables add up to the calculus of a riot: young black suspect, trigger-happy white cop, inner-city neighborhood. Irate residents shout at the cops and pour out of apartments, dash down the sidewalk, sprint from between buildings. Before the riot ignites, however, other residents on the street, who had witnessed the incident from the beginning and had seen the cameras rolling, explain that the shooting was not real, merely a scene from the television show "Southland."

This kind of authenticity is the hallmark of the show, now midway through its fourth season, which has garnered critical acclaim if moderate ratings for its attention to detail, gritty realism and ability to credibly portray the tribulations of LAPD street cops and detectives. The Wall Street Journal's review of the new season on TNT was headlined: "Does It Get Any Better Than This?"

While much of television is shot in Southern California, "Southland" is one of the few shows that has vividly captured the diversity and the sprawling landscape of Los Angeles. From Bel-Air to Boyle Heights, from Venice to Watts, the show provides viewers with a kaleidoscopic travelogue of the city -- at its best and its worst. There are few sets; most of the shooting is done on the street.

Many television shows use cops behind the camera for crowd control. In "Southland," off-duty cops are on camera. During roll call, in the detective squad room, on the street securing a homicide scene, almost all the cops in the background are cops playing cops. When evidence is collected at crime scenes or bodies are hauled off to the morgue, the show uses off-duty LAPD criminalists or coroner's investigators.

HBO's "The Wire" was a landmark show because of the graphic way it portrayed cops, criminals and killers in inner-city Baltimore. A few other shows, including "NYPD Blue" and "Hill Street Blues," were lauded for attempting to realistically portray officers in and out of the squad room. For the most part, however, television cop shows have strained the bounds of viewers' credulity.

Executive Producer Christopher Chulack had a different vision. "I wanted 'Southland' to feel immediate, like a ride-along, and to make it the closest thing possible to a cop reality show," he said. "We've got real cops out there every day. A lot of times we'll say, 'You guys just do what you normally do and we'll film it.'"

Adding to the sense of realism, the actors playing gangsters are not sent to auditions by their Beverly Hills agents. Most are ex-gangbangers, tatted and menacing, who know how to mad-dog rivals, throw gang signs and dis the cops. During some shoots, the officers who are extras and the gangsters who are extras previously had encounters on the street, which has made for fraught moments.

During one episode, the two actors playing gang detectives careened to a stop on a Boyle Heights street to question a group of extras playing gang members, who quickly surrounded the cops. The off-duty officers soon offered a few suggestions to Chic Daniel, a retired LAPD officer who is the show's technical advisor.

"A few of the guys said the gang cops should immediately have the gangsters turn around with their hands around their heads and then search them," said Daniel. "A few other guys said the cops should make the gangsters sit on the ground and cross their legs so they can't get up and run. Pretty soon the former gang members started offering advice. They said that as soon as the cops pulled up, a few guys who weren't holding dope or guns would run. When the cops chased them, the rest of the guys would split in the other direction. We incorporated all of that, and the end result was we had a very realistic scene."

Before the first season, Daniel put the cast through a weeklong boot camp, where they learned how to cuff a suspect, how to frame a door during a warrant search, how to clear a house. They shot their weapons at the range and went on ride-alongs with officers. The actors hit the weight room and bulked up.

Since its inception, women and minorities have populated the writing staff, which has enabled "Southland" to tell the story of the current-day LAPD, which is no longer a bastion of white males but is now one of the most diverse police forces in the nation. Cheo Hodari Coker, a supervising producer, began his career covering gangster rap for The Times and other publications.

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