Thursday, March 21, 2013

Report from the Set: The Surreal Life of 'Southland'...

I have been covering TNT's Southland for the past two seasons, invited each year out to visit the set by its studio Warner Brothers. Something that has always struck me about Southland-- but which I never really gave much thought until the actors I interviewed from the show, namely Michael Cudlitz, pointed it out was just how little we would get to know the various suspects and victims of any given episode. Since the show shoots documentary/reality style, following the days and the lives of these LAPD officers on the job, we go with them as they respond to calls-- everything from traffic accidents to noise complains to canine and domestic issues to homicides. With the exception of Detective Lydia Adams (Regina King) and now her partner Ruben (Dorian Missick), we don't follow a case from beginning to end because uniform officers-- especially first responders-- don't have that responsibility. They check out scenes, take statements, and wait for detectives to arrive if it's particularly bad. What this amounts to is a whole lot of adrenaline to chase down a bad guy, to just walk away from him. Oddly, despite the training procedurals have given television audiences, it doesn't frustrate me when we don't hear a confession or even learn what was really going on at a particular scene on Southland. Sure, I have questions, but the next scene of the show thrusts me into something else, and I have to let it roll off my back, trusting that someone out there is handling it. It's an intense and extremely truthful look at being a real cop on this city's streets.

Standing around on a film or television set is always a bit weird: people wander around, take cell phone calls, eat, and crack jokes in full costume and make-up-- which can be anything from nuns to zombies to royalty. Standing around on a film or television set that is utilizing a real location is where the surreality creeps in. You expect a hodgepodge of characters when on a studio lot, but in the "real world," most actors stay in trailers until first team is called. Not on Southland. Perhaps partially due to the quick turnarounds and set ups in between shoots, these actors are happy to stand on street corners and chat with crew and extras while they wait for action to be called again. Standing tall in their LAPD blues, everyone driving down the street slows a bit, assuming they are real cops until they see the camera rigs. They command attention and authority; they blend in seamlessly with the city's backdrop.

"Bleed Out" was the episode this fifth season for which I was on set, and despite everything running as smoothly as usual on set of Southland that day, I couldn't help but look around and feel like it was a bit surreal to be standing there. See, the particular day I was on set at two separate real house locations to investigate a guy stabbing himself and a homicide of a baby, the city-wide manhunt for Christopher Dorner was underway. Many people probably look at the officers tasked with acting as security for film sets and wish they had such cushy jobs-- especially on a day like that-- but I was told repeatedly from the show's producer, AD, and LAPD consultant that they were actually antsy to get back to regular duty, to stand with their brothers and sisters in the real fight and bring down a real bad guy. 

Now, Dorner, as we all know, was specifically targeting people within the LAPD he felt had wronged him and were corrupt, but I never felt unsafe standing surrounded by a group of officers-- some real and some just acting. I marveled more at the positive image Southland was pushing forward at a time when one man was doing a lot to set the LAPD back. I'm not going to argue whether I think his corruption claims were unfounded; I read his manifesto, and it didn't sound nearly as rambling or "crazy" as one might expect from a spree killer. Anyone who knows me also knows I don't have the best appreciation of the "big gun, big stick" mentality and have seen and heard about enough police corruption to question who would show up at my door if I ever needed help. But the kind of police work Southland portrays is the kind I want to believe is prevalent in every city, big or small. There will always be a rotten apple in the bunch, but that one doesn't have to spoil the whole bushel.

I have to admit, I did feel a little pang of remorse that we didn't get to know more about the guy who was stabbing himself in his backyard that Cooper (Cudlitz) and Lucero (Anthony Ruivivar) attended to. In fact, I wonder how many people realized he was stabbing himself-- and the why behind it-- or if they even cared, if he was just another crazy on the streets of L.A. that these good cops put themselves in harm's way to protect and serve.

The scene where Cooper and Lucero showed up at the guy's house, only to be followed by a little neighbor kid on a bike, was the first scene I saw being shot that day. After Cooper carried the kid away, there was another scene in which he and his new partner watched the guy be put in an ambulance and talked. I was across the street, being utilized as an extra while watching filming, so I couldn't hear what they were talking about. I suspect it might have been something expositional to explain the situation. Originally, per the actors, the sequence was supposed to go earlier in the episode, before they got to the bus accident. It was an escalation of terrible for Cooper, who only capped off his day by learning his old mentor was completely broken down and suicidal. After one of his toughest emotional days, getting increasingly emotionally involved with people as he usually doesn't do, he got a hard look into a potential future.

We have gotten to know the cops on Southland so well after the last few years that we understand their motivations and behaviors, even when they make a mistake or a bad day causes them to snap or lash out. There were moments in "Bleed Out" that made me realize how one-sided that can be. Not everyone the officers come into contact with on Southland is a bad guy, yet they often all get lumped that way in treatment and memory, simply because they're a dime a dozen.

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