I know I wave the flags of certain shows more than others. Dramas like Friday Night Lights, Big Love, and Southland have been rocking my world for at least a couple of years now, and I am unashamed of buying wholly and happily into the dramatic illusions created by these shows. Where one (slightly too cynical) person may see in a show a contrived storyline, some kind of emotional manipulation, and obvious "character types", I like being able to see beauty in a redemptive narrative, the extremes and lulls of representing changing human emotions, and characters that make decisions I believe human beings would actually make.
In short, scripted TV shows are capable of conveying the shades of black, white, and gray found in life, and like with any good piece of narrative art, I get excited about consuming it.
It is with this in mind that I have to once again sing the praises of the best cop show on TV right now (and maybe ever), TNT's Southland. A few weeks ago, an episode called "Code 4" premiered, and, seemingly out of nowhere, shocked and unnerved me in a way that few TV shows ever have. I remember a couple of ER episodes having a similar effect on me, as well as an episode of Millennium called "A Room with No View", LOST's series finale, and The X-Files' infamous "Home" episode. I'm sure there have been others, but I'd rank this episode right up there with some of the best TV I've seen. If you're a fan of the show, you know what I'm talking about, and if you're not, this episode is worth a download or online viewing. Seriously, I dare you to not be affected by the last five minutes.
I don't want to write a recap here because I think that would do a disservice to an extremely well-constructed teleplay, but I want to point out a couple of things that struck me. The A-story, that of Nate (Kevin Alejandro) and Sammy (Shawn Hatosy) trying to track down the killer of a man gunned down in front of his kids, was a perfect lead-in to Nate's final scene. In last week's episode ("Cop or Not"), Sammy sentimentalized Nate's ability to see gang members simply as kids who were capable of reasoning with him if they were shown respect. Throughout the episode, we saw Nate living by this creed, but from a story-telling standpoint, the best part was that Nate seeking justice for a seemingly innocent victim and showing respect to the men who had killed him did not seem like a sentimental send-off for the character. On the contrary, it seemed like just another day. The tragedy here was that the character didn't die being heroic or extreme: he died suddenly and unexpectedly (for the characters and the audience) doing what he always did.
The B-story, an unrelated run of the mill procedural, in which Lydia (Regina King) was tracking down the killer of a drug dealer, was also executed with excellent precision and clever story-telling. Interestingly, the writers managed to make a PlayStation an effective dramatic tool first by using it to help construct the characters of a couple of detectives we don't know very well, next by using it to ostensibly create a comically fractured relationship between an uncle and his nephew, and finally as the motive for the uncle's murder. Clever, right?
The story of the episode was Nate's murder and the harrowing way Sammy fought for him, and that's what stuck with me, but I thought it was worth noting that even the B-story was told with intelligence and careful attention to detail. This season of Southland hasn't missed a beat. "Code 4" is an example of TV as art, displaying rhetorical modes of persuasion with remarkable balance. If you haven't been watching this show, you really should.