The TV cop drama is a genre nearly as old as the medium itself, and while networks are always looking for ways to tweak the formula, the biggest successes always come back to basics. This coming week brings two new cop dramas with different approaches that nevertheless rely heavily on the familiar. The Unusuals (ABC, Wednesdays, 10 p.m.) takes place in New York City and features characters whose oddball behavior informs the way they solve cases; Southland (NBC, Thursdays, 10 p.m.) takes place in Los Angeles and goes for a more immediate on-the-ground approach, with little room for niceties like humor. Despite their varied stabs at edginess, both come off as pretty standard stuff.
The less conventional of the two, The Unusuals takes great pains to establish the quirkiness of its characters, which include a detective who talks about himself in the third person; another who’s convinced a family curse will doom him to die at age 42 (a milestone he’s just reached); his partner, who’s secretly living with a brain tumor and acting out a death wish; a hyper-religious detective who sees life in clear-cut terms of good and evil; and the main character, a female detective transferred to homicide from vice, who hides her posh upbringing lest it make her an object of ridicule among her colleagues.
All of this window dressing is a little cutesy and overdetermined, and it ends up having little bearing on the meat of the show, which is, of course, the solving of cases. The pilot sets up a long-term storyline about corruption within the division that seems a little too grim for the wacky tone, while also serving up a B-plot about missing cats. Neither is all that satisfying, although Amber Tamblyn (best known as Joan of Arcadia and a member of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) is surprisingly strong as the show’s lead, and makes both the forced wackiness and heavy seriousness go down a little easier.
Southland is more of an ensemble piece, but it too has an anchoring main character eager to hide a privileged past. In this case, it’s a rookie beat cop played by The O.C.’s Ben McKenzie, who’s not quite as successful as Tamblyn in transcending his teen-drama past. To Southland’s credit, though, it doesn’t overemphasize its characters’ quirks; by the end of the pilot, you’re still not quite sure what wealthy enclave spawned McKenzie’s character, or why he wanted to escape. Likewise, another character’s homosexuality is revealed in a clear but subdued way.
There are problems with Southland, though, mainly in its self-conscious grittiness (which manifests not only in jittery, hand-held camerawork but also, bizarrely, in periodic bleeped curse words that would never pass muster on network TV) and sprawling, somewhat ill-defined focus. Rather than focusing on one case, or even A- and B-plots, the show attempts to depict the entire range of police work, from beat officers to undercover vice to high-profile kidnapping cases and everything in between, and can feel scattered as a result. Despite this more all-inclusive approach, the situations themselves are as generic as can be (the show’s original title was simply LAPD), and don’t offer any real new twists on the cop-drama template.
That inherent familiarity may be what carries both shows, though; Southland replaces the seemingly ageless and deeply conventional hospital drama ER, while The Unusuals takes over from failed sci-fi/cop hybrid Life on Mars. In one case, the show carries on a tradition of traditionalism, while in the other it brings proceedings back down to earth. Either way, the cop-drama formula is what’s being counted on to bring in viewers.