Critics apparently have been won over by Southland: The Complete First Season (Warner). Me, not so much. Promoted as a brave, new, uncompromising police drama when it debuted on NBC last season, this production from Ann Biderman and John Wells focuses on various levels of law enforcement in a single Los Angeles precinct, from uniformed officers to various grades of detectives. A pair of patrolmen center the series—veteran officer Cooper (Michael Cudlitz) who takes his responsibilities seriously as he mentors rookie Ben Sherman (Ben McKenzie), a rich kid trying to make a difference—but it’s an ensemble show with plenty of drama to go around. Regina King is the bleeding heart of the force as the detective who makes every case personal and whose dedication has taken a toll on her personal life, Tom Everett Scott is her more sardonic partner, a married man and father of three struggling with a failing marriage, and Kevin Alejandro, Arija Bareikis, Shawn Hatosy and Michael McGrady fill out the ensemble.
Creator Ann Biderman is an NYPD Blue veteran and John Wells produced Third Watch, and the show is reminiscent of both in its attempt to combine a dramatic realism in terms of character and documentary snapshot of working on the streets and in the squad room. The focus is less on the cases and more on the stress that the job puts on the member of the force, from broken relationships and failing families to drug and alcohol abuse, and the season ends on a particularly devastating emotional breakdown. Even the scrupulously by-the-book Cooper, a man with an aphorism for every occasion, has problems with painkillers. But for all the integrity and good intentions, it doesn’t redefine the cop drama as much as it thinks it does. A lot of people like show, but I didn’t connect with the characters or their stories in any compelling way.
The brief inaugural season of seven episodes is collected on a two-disc set along with the nicely-produced documentary Southland: Redefining the Cop Drama, which features interviews with most of the creative staff and featured actors. The original network broadcasts had bleeped-out language; the DVD presents the episodes uncensored, though I didn’t notice anything that would be out of place on a cable show. Which is a moot point anyway: the show moves to TNT for the second season, a decision that NBC is surely regretting now that it suddenly has five prime-time hours to fill with adult programming.
The BBC murder mystery-with-a-historical twist Bonekickers (Acorn) debuted in Britain in 2008 and took a couple of years making its way over the pond, possibly because, pedigree aside, it’s a good idea buried in a bad show. You could call it an archeological thriller: a team of eccentric archeologists who swoop in to investigates historical finds in and around their home base of Bath, England, and invariably unearth a historical mystery with “Da Vinci Code”-like dimensions involving the likes of the Knights Templar, the ancient warrior queen Boudica or King Arthur’s Round Table. It’s less “Indiana Jones” than “Bones,” at least in the sense that they are ostensibly doing what the squints on “Bones” should be doing when not solving murders with the FBI. They’re an arrogant bunch, to say the least, especially team leader Gillian (Julie Graham), who is pursuing a personal grail that drove her mother mad and may do the same to her. Adrian Lester co-stars as Gillian’s loyal partner in historical mystery, Michael Maloney plays…well, I’m not really sure what his specialty is, but the old boozer serves as comic relief and is should be on the verge of getting a sexual harassment suit slapped on him by the female interns for his lascivious remarks, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw is the intern who proves herself in the first episode and joins the team as the junior member. She, of course, has her own history, which is revealed in the final episodes to no good effect but to create contrived melodrama within the group.
The show is entertaining but frustratingly implausible, and not just for the convenient conspiracies with contemporary echoes that they uncover with alarming frequency. There is a complete lack of consequence for all the modern day murder and mayhem that follows in their wake. In the debut episode, a broad-daylight murder by an extremist Christian zealot with an ancient broadsword is followed by the destruction of an archeological trove of relics with incalculable religious significance and the deaths of two men, one a national figure of untold controversy. And what is the team’s first thought when they leave two would-be killers to burn to their deaths? A group laugh at Maloney’s cheeky quip and a trip to pub, while the third member of the zealots mourns his fallen comrades Wow, that’s not just cold, it’s criminally irresponsible. Apparently they couldn’t be bothered to call the police, and they’re off the hook for blundering their way through what has turned into a catastrophe on every level. Yeah, the historical mysteries are fun, but I expected a more intelligent engagement of the modern world from the creators of Life on Mars. The show only ran six episodes, all collected on three discs in a standard case with a hinged flap. Includes multiple behind-the-scene segments on each episode.
MI-5: Volume 7 (BBC) – I’ve finally burned out on 24 but I’m still hooked on Britain’s cliffhanger-strewn espionage series (which is called Spooks over on their side of the pond) about the core unit of Britain’s MI-5, their counter-intelligence and internal security service (kind of a mix of FBI and CIA, dedicated to stopping foreign threats on British soil, at least as far as this yank can tell). There’s a surprise hidden on the case for the new season—one of the faces will not last past the first episode. The death springboards the rest of the crew into action for revenge, but not against the Al Qaeda agents behind it. This season, their nemesis is the Russian operation in Britain, which includes some leftover remnants of the Cold War ready to go hot. This season is as good as any to date. Ros (Hermione Norris) is promoted to team leader and she brings a steely resolve and grit to leadership missing from earlier seasons and Jo (Miranda Raison) is facing doubts and psychic scars from last season’s trauma. There’s just one original cast member left—Peter Firth as the bulldog of a bureau chief and the show’s greatest asset—and the mortality rate of team members is as high as ever. But newest member Lucas North (Richard Armitage) brings his own drama to the team: he’s fresh out of eight years in a Russian prison and his loyalties are still in question. Gemma Jones is brings old-school class to the show as the veteran analyst Harry lured out of retirement the previous season, Hugh Simon (who has second-longest tenure on the show) gets to break out of yeoman’s duty here and there as he monitors radio and internet traffic and Robert Glenister (who knows a little about running an operation from his tenure on Hustle) has a recurring role as the new Home Secretary who puts a lot of trust in Harry and his team. Of course, this being MI-5, you never know how far that trust can be stretched when politics get involved. 10 episodes on four discs in a digipak, with commentary on select episodes and three production featurettes. Season eight just finished its run in Britain so there’s more to come, which is essential given the cliffhanger that ends season seven.
Leonard Bernstein Omnibus (E1) – Leonard Bernstein was the public face of music culture (both classical and popular, thanks to his Broadway compositions) for many Americans in the fifties and sixties. He used that familiarity in this series of seven programs in music appreciation that he wrote and presented for Omnibus, the prime-time arts showcase on live TV in the fifties, covering not just classical music but opera, jazz and musical comedy. These were prime time shows on a major network designed for general audience and the engaging Bernstein brings his passion to his role as educator, not just bringing art and culture into American living rooms but sharing his appreciation with everyone. The seven shows were broadcast between 1954 and 1958, and the three-disc set also includes a program featuring Bernstein conducting Handel’s Messiah for Christmas Day broadcast in 1955 and a booklet.
Also new this week: The Waltons: The Movie Collection (Warner) with six TV movies on two discs, the 10-part documentary series WWII in HD (A&E) originally made for the History Channel, the Canadian drama Durham County: Season One (Well Go USA) and Pawn Stars: Season One (A&E).