'Southland'

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The first hour of NBC's new cop drama "Southland" features two shootings, one child kidnapping, a club to the head and one gruesome demise that underscores why, if you're going to die alone in your house, you should let the dogs out first.

That's right, the John Wells Fargo wagon is comin' down the street again, and no one is to be spared. "Southland" was created and written with nimble expertise by relative television newcomer Ann Biderman, but in a lot of ways it's a combination of two of executive producer Wells' previous successes, "ER" and "Third Watch," except here, the cops do triage on an entire city.

The setup is classic: Young LAPD officer Ben Sherman (Ben McKenzie) is out for a training day with experienced Officer John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz), who rags him about his 90210 pedigree while showing him the ropes. Meanwhile, two other sets of cops and detectives respond to crimes and interview reluctant witnesses. It's a lot to digest, presented in a no-nonsense fashion — as much must-see TV as don't-blink TV.

"Southland" is compelling from minute one to credit roll — exciting, smart, realistic and brilliant, all in one brightly lit package. It shoots us into a world where gangs rule with impunity and the cops' patois of humor and lingo is the only thing that keeps them sane. Phrases like "asshole rodeo" and "badge bunnies," plus the insulting punch line "tuna boat," prove Biderman is more than ready for primetime.

There's some trouble in paradise, though: "Southland's" police force is very, very white (Regina King being the exception), and the perps are very, very nonwhite — a lack of diversity that undercuts its realism. And NBC is taking a risk by shoving this show into a 9 p.m. slot once Jay Leno owns the 10 p.m. berth. But those are minor quibbles for now.

"Southland" is no tourist ad for Los Angeles, yet despite the despair that leeches from the sidewalks and the humanity that all too briefly flashes in the faces of the officers, it's a place fans of smart TV should want to check into every week. To miss this series would be truly criminal.
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