Season 3, Episode 10
Original Airdate: March 8, 2011
Writers: John Wells (teleplay), Heather Zuhlke (story)
Director: Christopher Chulack
Executive Producers: Christopher Chulack, John Wells
Cast: Ben McKenzie, Regina King, Shawn Hatosy, Michael Cudlitz
For a show whose survival has been nothing short of miraculous and whose storytelling is consistently brilliant, “Southland” never seems to get the respect it deserves. Everyone I’ve recommended the show to doesn’t seem to know it exists or thinks its been long-cancelled, and yet when they actually watch an episode they end up addicted. And while I came close to choosing the nearly-flawless pilot for this article, “Graduation Day” represents the show at its creative peak, and part of what makes this episode special is that it should not logically exist.
The premise of “Southland” is as simple as they come – it follows the day-to-day lives of a handful of Los Angeles police officers and detectives. No huge meta twist, no quirky detective protagonist…just real people trying to stay above water while doing one of the most emotionally taxing, physically dangerous jobs on the planet. It premiered on NBC as a midseason replacement to decent ratings and was renewed for a second season shortly thereafter.
Then the great NBC Jay Leno experiment came into play.
For those unfamiliar, for a season NBC wiped all original programming from their 10 o’clock hour and replaced it with a Jay Leno talk show that premiered to huge ratings but then quickly floundered. Because of “Southland’s” dark content, NBC’s executives allegedly became very uncomfortable with airing it at 9 p.m. and cancelled it before it even had a chance to premier, with six episodes already filmed.
TNT, a network known more for “The Closer” than for gritty, realistic drama, swooped in and agreed to air the six unaired season two episodes. Then, miracle of miracles, the network picked it up for a third season of ten episodes with a much-reduced budget…and the results are some of the best television I have ever seen. It’s not often that a show has a “perfect” season, and even now I can count them on a single hand…but, to me, the season is just about as perfect as they come. The show seemed to flourish under the budget cuts, taking more chances and finding inventive (and often heartbreaking) ways to trim its cast. The storytelling was more honest and streamlined – and now the show is in the middle of its fifth season. All with a fraction of the critical acclaim lavished on shows like “Girls” or “Boardwalk Empire.”
But back to “Graduation Day” which, despite being the third season finale, is only the 23rd episode of the series. The brilliant John Wells (who helped to craft such masterworks as “The West Wing” and “E.R.”) wrote the script based off a story by Heather Zuhlke, and together they paid off storylines that had legitimately been building since the first episode of the series. I’m guessing that they went into the episode assuming that it would be a series finale, which is why there is an added sense of urgency to almost every scene.
The theme of the hour, underlined by its title, is one of transitions for every cast member. Ben (Ben McKenzie) is graduating from boot cop. Cooper (Michael Cudlitz) finally must face his painkiller addiction head on. Sammy (Shawn Hatosy) finally catches the scum who murdered his partner and welcomes his son into the world. Chickie (Arija Bareikis) is moving on from her partnership with Dewey (C. Thomas Howell), who doesn’t know how to deal with it. And Lydia (Regina King) explodes the finally stable relationship she has with her partner.
As with any episode of “Southland,” it’s all about the moment-to-moment encounters these officers have and how those small beats build up to a cohesive whole. A career. A life. In a scene that could easily have come across as throwaway, Ben and Cooper are called to a house where a mother is livid that her husband allowed a gang symbol to be tattooed on their six-year-old son. The scene plays almost comically at first, but then we see the young boy point his finger at Cooper repeatedly and pretend to be shooting him. And suddenly, our hearts break. We understand the struggle they go through and recognize how much these cops must feel like they are punching water on a day-to-day basis.
Another beautifully realized moment: Sammy learns that there is a warrant out against the man he knows killed his partner, though not for the murder. The thug is involved in a shootout and Sammy races to the thug just in time to see him bleeding to death. Instead of comforting him or walking away, Sammy leans into the guy’s face and repeats his partner’s name, Nate Moretta, over and over until the man is dead. It’s immensely powerful and a fantastic way to climax the main arc of the season, but one can’t help but be a little horrified by it. In other words, it’s great drama.
As if that wasn’t enough, the centerpiece of the finale is a fantastic foot chase between Ben and a rapist/kidnapper, with the drug-addled Cooper far behind and barely able to walk, let alone lend support his partner. In fact, there’s a moment where Cooper is climbing over a fence and we see his entire body shift and crack before he falls that is one of the most cringe-inducing I’ve ever seen. The action moves to a series of rooftops that Jimmy Stewart should really avoid. Director Christopher Chulack (who directed many of “Southland’s” best hours) gives the sequence a great build and tension, never allowing the scope of the set-piece outmeasure the grittiness of its circumstances. There’s a down-and-dirty hand-to-hand fight between Ben and the rapist that is punctuated with a climax that left my jaw on the floor thanks to a really, Really, REALLY amazing stunt (the show’s only Emmy love comes from its stuntwork, which is always aces).
In all of its most important episodes, the writers find new shades and uses for the simple phrase “I’m a cop.” In the pilot Ben says it, in the second-season finale Chickie says it while arresting a cop-impersonator. Here the statement, so important and iconic to the series, it spoken by Cooper while he is volunteering for detox before he can have back surgery. He’s broken mentally and physically, but still a person. Still human. And that’s what “Southland” so perfectly portrays. Its characters are flawed, sometimes horrible, but ultimately good…and we can’t help but love them for it. This is a fantastic show, one whose reputation will certainly grow over time. Take my word for it; “Southland” is a modern classic…most people just don’t know it yet.