Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Southland and the Sgt. Pepper Moment

John McFetridge

The story goes that when the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper and the Lonely Hearts Club Band came out in June 1967 every other musician working on an album stopped and reconsidered everything they were doing. The Rolling Stones quickly put together Their Satanic Majesties Request, often called the least representative album of all the Stones’ work (I still like “She’s a Rainbow,” but that’s the only song from that album anyone’s likely to hear these days).

One version of the story is here, if you're interested:

Apparently Brian Wilson was working on the album Smile for the Beach Boys (the follow-up to Pet Sounds) when he heard Sgt. Pepper and stopped everything. Smile finally came out in 2003.

This year I was one of the writers on a new cop show, The Bridge, when Southland premiered.

We had a Sgt. Pepper moment in the writers’ room.

Not as drastic as Brian Wilson’s, no one put a sandbox in their living room (as far as I know) and we finished writing all our scripts on time, but Southland was different enough from other cop shows on TV and similar enough to The Bridge for us to talk about non-stop every day after an episode aired.

There are a lot of things about Southland that to talk about. The look of the show is incredible, especially for a network show – it looks like a cable show and it sounds like one, with plenty of the dialogue bleeped out (of course the difference between a cable and network show is more than just swearing, nudity and fewer viewers). The subject matter is terrific. It’s not just the usual cop stories of bad-bad guys and flawed cops. It’s not a procedural interviewing witnesses and getting lab reports until the crime is solved. It goes deeper into everyone’s lives – cops and criminals and victims and people just caught in the middle.

The cast is fantastic. My favourite is Regina King as Lydia. She's a tough cop but she also has her mother living with her and trouble dating because not many men want to go out with a police detective. It's great to see how she handles all this and still does her job so well.

But it’s also great to see her with the teenage crime witness and talk to the mother of a murder victim that’s now a cold case. The interaction between the cops and the victims of the crimes is incredibly well done.

The Bridge is more of a procedural, often looking into cops accused of crimes because the main character, Frank Leo (played by the terrific Aaron Douglas), is head of the police union. Sometimes the cops are actually guilty of crimes, sometimes not.

We were working on the script for an episode about a cop who loses his gun when Southland aired an episode about a cop who loses his gun. Of course, it’s handled quite differently, but it made us wonder what was in the air.

The final episode of the first season of The Bridge will have one of the best car chases a TV show has ever had. The final epsisode of the first season of Southland features a one-car car chase that’s one of the most tense two minutes of TV ever.

Once we got over the Sgt. Pepper moment and the similarities we were able to sit back and enjoy Southland. It’s a writer’s show, the same way Mad Men is a writer’s show. Complicated characters, layered plots and no easy answers.

The new season of Southland starts October 23rd on NBC but you can watch highlights from the first season on the excellent website right now if you live in the USA. In Canada CTV hasn’t put anything online yet.

As far as I know right now, CBS plans to start advertising The Bridge during the NFL playoffs in January and start airing the show sometime in the week following the Super Bowl. I think there's enough room on network TV for two shows about the inner workings of a big city police department.

Here's a trailer for The Bridge:


Dana King said...

I don't watch TV anymore, aside from sports and DVDs. You may have pushed me over the brink on SOUTHLAND. I heard a lot of good things about it, but they were well into the season before it really hit my radar, and I didn't want to come in halfway through. I just added it to m NetFlix list, though it won't be available for a while yet.

What the hell, I went ahead and added THE SHIELD, too. Expand my horizons a little.

Steve Weddle said...

Seem to be some good cop shows on TV. The contained mystery/story makes sense. Also, the idea that these guys/gals don't need any motivation to solve the mystery, what with its being the job and all.
So much the better when you have quality written stuff such as Southland and The Bridge to enjoy. These shows take those assumptions and twist them around, changing motivations and injecting the personal story into a formula drama. Good stuff.
Looking forward to THE BRIDGE.

Mike Knowles said...

Southland was a really good show last year. I think it was responsible for running The Unusuals off. When I watched it, I was convinced that it is somehow derived from a book called L.A. Rex by Will Beal. There are a lot of similarities and both are definitely worth checking out.

All of the Bridge promo's I have seen look fantastic. I don't think Southland will have any effect. Good is good and people will watch two good cop shows. Think of all the Law and Order's out there, people watch the crap out of those and they have more in common than me and my brother.

pattinase (abbott) said...

SOUTHLAND was really good-more like THE WIRE than the typical fare. I think there is more than enough room for two gritty cop shows. It's the courtroom and crime lab shows that bore me.