Media Relations: media commentary and criticism

Thursday, May 07, 2009


-- television -- southland

So I've been watching the new police procedural show on NBC, Southland, since it debuted about a month ago. And mostly, I like the show. It's an interesting balance between showing the mundane aspects of police work, and the more interesting investigations. To the extent that we've seen them, I like the various characters. I like the interplay between rookie cop Sherman and the gruff older (and gay, though it's been very very understated) cop Cooper. Regina King's detective Lydia Adams is kind of awesome. The characters mostly seem like real people, and not types or charicatures. But something about it has been bothering me, but it wasn't until this week that I understood what it was. And it's just this: the show takes place in the modern day, but they're showing us the Los Angeles Police Department of 1980.

The Los Angeles they're showing us is overwhelmingly black and Latino, with occasional moments of relatively well off and working class whites. (NB: According to the LA Almanac, Los Angeles is roughly 30% white, 9% black, 13% Asian, 46% Hispanic, and the rest assorted other.) The LAPD they're showing us is overwhelmingly white. (According to Wikipedia, which got the stats from the US Department of Justice, "the LAPD was 82% male in 2000. 46% of the department was white, 33% of the department was Hispanic/Latino, 14% was African American, and 7% was Asian.") As far as we can tell, Southland seems to contain several white cops, one Latino, two blacks and two women (with overlap between the last two). Granted, it's only one precinct. And granted, the black woman and Glynn Turman's occasional chief of police are blacks in a position of authority. And granted, television has only just so much obligation to have its fictions resemble reality even a little.

It seems to be a thing that happens with police procedurals set in Los Angeles. It was present, though not quite to the same degree, with FX's The Shield. The Shield had much more in the way of both black and Hispanic police around, and just as important, recurring black and Hispanic other characters who had, like, lines. And, to be sure, it's not remotely fair to be judging Southland on its recurring characters; after all, it's only been on a few weeks, and we've barely started to get a handle on all the regular characters. (If I were to give a pure critique, I'd say that the show was perhaps a mite overpopulated; it's difficult to even remember who characters are week to week, and it's got to accommodate so many of them each episode that it can seem a bit cluttered. That said, that aspect seems fairly realistic. At any given time, you're going to have a lot of police in any given precinct, out on the streets, etc. It just makes for busy drama.)

Southland's casting is only really problematic when you have episodes like the one from May 7, where one of the cops gets his gun stolen by some gang members after a traffic accident. In order to find the gun without having to fill out an incident report, the cops roust out something called a "misdemeanor bust", where they basically arrest everyone they can see for any reason whatsoever. In other words, what we see is a bunch of white cops rousting and harrassing, with no real cause, a bunch of blacks and Latinos. In the real world, that would have gotten them, at the least, a blizzard of entirely justified police harrassment complaints and lawsuits, and quite possibly an out-and-out riot. The media would have been covering it much more than they were, and heads would have had to been seen to have rolled.

Quite honestly, I don't think the producers and writers ever thought about how this looks, in that sense. I'm not saying that anyone was at all, to any degree, racist.They got the best actors they could find for the roles they had in mind. Which ... fine, OK, I get that, really I do. But at some level, it seems like they should have thought about how their televised Los Angeles and LAPD would look against the real Los Angeles and LAPD. And beyond that, they should have thought about how casting the way they did would make their LAPD look against their Los Angeles. And I really don't think they did.

I still like the show. I still think it's worth watching, and that it's enjoyable, overall. But it is deeply and sincerely problematic, here and there.

Posted by iain at 09:33 PM in category television