On the Set: 'Southland'

2012-23 FEA Southland Ben McKenzie H
David Strick

Ben McKenzie, who plays Officer Ben Sherman, says "Southland" has ramped up his sense of local geography: "Let's just say I know where to get great fish tacos in every neighborhood in L.A."

Toto, we're not on the Westside anymore. TNT's intense cop drama reveals the gritty realism of the LAPD.

In the episode "Legacy," shot Dec. 12, 2011, Michael Cudlitz's Officer John Cooper attempts to talk a suicidal teen off a roof by revealing he is gay. It's an admission that occurs for the first time after nearly four seasons that included maybe two subtle clues, exemplifying both Southland's nuanced approach and grim authenticity. The TNT drama, created by Ann Biderman, presents a spare -- and unsparing -- depiction of street crime and gang tensions that, combined with gallows-humor-laden banter and docustyle action (no other series features as many foot chases), creates a heady mix. "My husband is a cop," says episode writer Heather Zuhlke, "and I'm incredibly proud of the work we're doing."

As a successor to shows that raised the bar of grit -- Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, The Wire, The Shield -- this series' every episode is a nerve-steeling ride-along showcasing intimate storylines that are all the more powerful for their restraint. "Stories that affect our cops emotionally and reveal their attitudes" are Southland hallmarks, says Zuhlke, as is doing the homework. "We actually do a lot of research and record in the cars of officers," says exec producer John Wells, with whom Chris Chulack shares the title. "We just take a lot of that language and put it in."

The hard-charging intensity that ends up onscreen is matched by the production's pace. Says Regina King, who stars as Detective Lydia Adams: "We do in one day what a lot of dramas do in two days. We have to be ready to adapt to any type of environment, so it forces you to trust your instincts more."

While the series shoots all over L.A., from Hollywood to downtown to Silver Lake, Wells cites a unique challenge with filming in areas unused to crews: "Getting in and out of neighborhoods quickly before too large a crowd grows [is our goal]. We tend to be in neighborhoods that aren't regularly shot in, so we're quite a novelty."