When a low-rated show from a broadcast TV network is canceled, its fans will often ask me if some random cable network might pick it up. After all, they reason, cancellation-level ratings on a broadcast network would be a success on a smaller cable channel, right?
I always explain that it’s not that simple, for two reasons. First, when a show moves from a bigger channel to a smaller one, its ratings almost always dip proportionally. But more importantly, broadcast shows and cable ones are made on a different cost structure where the network ones can cost twice as much as their cable counterparts. So any show trying to make the jump from one model to the other would have its budget slashed so much that it would barely resemble its former self.
But the TNT cop drama “Southland,” which returns Tuesday night at 10 p.m., might have me rethinking the whole thing.
As you may recall, “Southland” aired its first season on NBC, whose executives ordered a second season, then canceled it before airing because they felt its content was too raw for 9 p.m., while the 10 p.m. hour had just been taken over by the great and powerful Jay Leno. Six episodes had been produced, and TNT picked them up, with the promise that they might be able to produce new episodes in the future if the ratings for those six merited it. The numbers were, indeed, quite a bit smaller than they’d been on NBC (the sixth episode drew a little over 2 million viewers), but that was apparently enough for TNT to order a third season.
And even though the budget was slashed from somewhere between (depending on which published report you believe) 20 to 30 percent, “Southland” season 3 looks and feels exactly like the abbreviated first two seasons. The entire season two cast is back - though some will apparently be in all episodes while others like Kevin Alejandro will be part-timers - there’s still a ton of location shooting on the streets of LA, and the stories told in the first two episodes feel exactly like the sort the show told in 2009.
So credit to producers John Wells, Christopher Chulack and company for figuring out how to make this work in a way that fans of the NBC version won’t notice major differences. Some jobs were lost, and many people took salary cuts, but “Southland” still seems like “Southland.”
On the other hand, while I certainly wouldn’t wish unemployment on anyone, particularly in this economy, I had hoped that Wells might cut a little deeper, because from where I sit, “Southland” remains a show with too much going on.
In splitting the action between the uniform officers and detectives in an LAPD precinct, the show is trying to depict a good cross-section of the city’s cop culture. But the scenes with the uniform cops - Ben McKenzie as a young quick study, Michael Cudlitz as his gruff but clever training officer - are just much more vibrant and memorable than anything with the detectives. And even among the detective stories, there’s a stratification, where I at least enjoy Regina King’s performance as an investigator who wears her heart on her sleeve, while I struggle to maintain any interest in stories involving Alejandro, Shawn Hatosy and Michael McGrady as members of the precinct’s gang task force, even though I’ve quite liked Alejandro and Hatosy elsewhere.
Each episode of a show focused largely on McKenzie and Cudlitz going through their day would by design be more a bunch of disconnected incidents, lacking the obvious narrative through line and high stakes of the murder investigations the detectives work. But even with those stakes, those cases are usually boring and feel like stuff you can find on several thousand other cop shows, even with the emphasis on local color. What the uniforms do - whether something small like settling a petty dispute over a toy store’s return policy, or something flashy like a shootout with a crew of armed robbers - just feels like a more interesting, lifelike show.
There’s a scene in the second episode where Cudlitz and McKenzie are having lunch with a bunch of other uniforms. The conversation turns to the cop groupie McKenzie has started dating, which sparks a series of anecdotes about “den mothers” and “badge bunnies” the others have encountered. As the cops keep swapping sick, funny, colorful stories (all of them pretty obviously told to the writing staff by real LAPD cops), I thought to myself, “This is what the show should be, much more often than it is.”
It would be a different show from the one TNT bought (and the one its small network of fans apparently likes), and a scene like that might not be as easy to cut into a 30-second promo as a shot of the detectives standing over a dead body and promising justice. But it would be a show I’d watch a lot more regularly.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org