"I've seen the corrupt side of the LAPD, but since I've been involved in this show I've learned to respect a lot of officers I've met on the job," he said. "I used to only think about the guys in their cars who were being stopped. Now I'm also thinking about the cops who are stopping them and the danger they face on the street."
A new dynamic
The first three seasons focused on the relationship between a rookie -- Ben McKenzie, playing Ben Sherman -- and his hard-nosed training officer, John Cooper, played by Michael Cudlitz, a closeted gay who has a bad back and a pain pill habit. During the fourth season, Cooper, released from rehab, is teamed with Jessica Tang, played by Lucy Liu.
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.
The show also features convincing performances by Regina King, who plays a homicide detective, and Shawn Hatosy, an ex-gang officer teamed with Sherman. The driving force of the first three seasons was the testy relationship between Sherman and veteran Cooper. As Cooper tried to teach his young charge the mechanics and the mind set of policing, the viewer learned along with Sherman. The challenge for the fourth season will be to match that dramatic drive.
The verisimilitude of the show and the filming on the street enable actors to get a better feel for their roles, McKenzie said. Shooting was interrupted one day in South Los Angeles when, about a hundred feet from the cameras, a woman burst out of her apartment waving a loaded gun, threatening to shoot her boyfriend. McKenzie arrested a gangbanger in one scene, and he was such a convincing actor that the show wanted to bring him back for another episode. Unfortunately, he was unavailable because he had violated parole and was back in jail.
In one scene, McKenzie shoved his shotgun in his patrol car, muzzle first. An off-duty cop working as an extra told him that if he didn't want to shoot his partner, the shotgun should go butt-first.
"These guys on the set aren't shy," said McKenzie, relaxing in his trailer after a morning of shooting downtown. "Acting is like tennis: You're only as good as the person you're playing against."
For an actor, Cudlitz said, getting the nuances right is easier on "Southland" because when the shooting starts he is surrounded by cops.
"This changes the feeling of a set," said Cudlitz, lingering beside the old Terminal Annex post office building. "You get sucked into a different kind of energy because you pick up things from the people around you. I ask a lot of questions: 'Hey, would I step over the tape here?' 'Would I be starting paperwork now?' Sometimes there are a multitude of answers. But when I hear, 'You'd never do that,' I definitely pay attention."
On many police shows, the females simply impersonate the macho males and miss the complexities and contradictions of being a woman and a cop.
"It's interesting seeing the female extras who are off duty," said King. "They have the command presence, but they're still very much women. They wear mascara, for example. It's the subtle things like this that help me understand how to play a strong woman who is still feminine."
Like a documentary
Most of the shooting is done is sketchy neighborhoods using small, hand-held digital cameras. The documentary feel is enhanced by the abrupt cutting. Because there is no need to build and maintain sets, the production costs are kept at a reasonable level.
The show displays the boredom, the frustration, the terror and the flashes of humor that compose the street cops' daily routine. Unlike many forensic shows in which detectives immediately obtain lab results, these cops, like real LAPD detectives, endure endless waits for DNA results because of the massive backup.
These cops know not to touch a body until a coroner's investigator arrives and how to dab their nostrils with Vicks VapoRub before entering an apartment with a odorous decomp.
The show was created by Chulack and John Wells, both former executive producers of "ER." The show premiered on NBC in 2009. Because of its adult content, "Southland" was designed to be a 10 p.m. show, but NBC consigned it to 9 p.m. Ratings were so-so, and network executives canceled the show six months later, and cable channel TNT immediately picked it up.
"Because of all the reality shows, viewers have a higher standard; they're very aware of something that seems artificial," Wells said "In 'ER,' we'd have one or two people -- maybe a nurse and a physician -- in the background who really did it. We amplified that on "Southland.' We wanted to do something that was real -- and maybe it was a little too real for NBC ... and for some viewers who want a simple black-and-white show: the bad guy has to be stopped and the good guy will stop them."
The show has attracted a loyal following, and a show today, Wells said, can thrive with a smaller audience, as compared with a few decades ago.