The Wednesday Playlist: Southland, a Middle Valentine, Survivor
Michael Cudlitz | Photo Credits: Doug Hyun/TNT
Drama, comedy, reality: This is one of those nights where TV is firing on all cylinders.
Let's start with the heavy lifting. One of TV's most encouraging survival stories returns with the fifth-season premiere of TNT's uncommonly gritty police drama Southland (10/9c), a network reject (from NBC's darkest period) that thrives on cable, with a sharper focus and a determined avoidance of procedural cliché.
Each episode is like a graphic tour of duty on the streets of Los Angeles, and in the opener, it's not always immediately clear if the patrol cops and detectives in the line of fire are witnessing a real crime or make believe or some other sort of scam. (One vignette involving a brawl between naked men in a sauna looks like an outtake from Spartacus.) "Treat it like a circus," seasoned training office John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz) advises his latest ride-along, an Afghan War vet with too much attitude. The media circus threatens to consume Cooper's former partner Ben Sherman (Ben McKenzie), newly decorated and enjoying the attention a bit too much. Grounding these characters in the mundane distractions of unblemished real life, Detective Lydia Adams (Regina King) is adjusting to single motherhood with her usual weary impatience, while Ben's combustible partner Sammy Bryant (Shawn Hatosy) wrangles bitterly over child custody with his estranged wife (Emily Bergl returning to a thankless role).
The randomness of the action and the sense of futility (most notable in Lydia's dealings with a male rape victim) distinguish Southland from run-of-the-mill cop dramas, but its downbeat tone and often non-linear approach — when did Cooper's "confirmed bachelor" status change? — make it better suited for a long life on cable. "It sucks when things look fake," says a guerilla filmmaker whose latest project gets busted in one of the more amusing anecdotes. Looking fake is not one of Southland's problems.
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HOUSE OF LIES: "Lie? What does that even mean to us?" cries Elizabeth (Keri Russell) to her husband Philip (Matthew Rhys) in the best-yet episode of FX's compelling spies-next-door drama The Americans (10/9c). Their marriage and entire life are built on pretense and the pretext of American-family normalcy, as they go about their duties as deeply embedded Russian spies. When they discover their fallen comrade left behind a wife and child he had told no one about, this secret exposes the fissures in their own relationship, exacerbated by the arrival of another spy with whom Elizabeth has a history. This episode also marks the arrival of the wonderful Margo Martindale (Emmy winner for Justified) as the couple's deceptively matronly new handler, who likes to take "a more personal approach with my operatives." Philip calls her "Granny," but she's no doddering pushover.
TEAM PLAYERS: Secrets also bedevil the management of the pro-football Hawks as USA Network's Necessary Roughness (10/9c) nears the end of its season, with the first of a two-part finale that challenges stereotypes as it confronts the issue of closeted gay players in this macho environment. Dr. Dani (Callie Thorne) is at the center of things, as usual, as she observes her latest client's dilemma: sacrifice his privacy as the first openly gay active player in the NFL or doom his relationship: "I don't want to be Jackie Robinson. I just want to play ball." Is it just coincidence that in another subplot, the latest step in TK's (Mehcad Brooks) rehab involves swallowing his pride and stepping up to the ballet barre? Man up, dude.