Reality TV’s impact on Southland, TNT’s outstanding, realistic LAPD drama

TNT’s Southland is one of the best scripted shows on television, and like other successful and well-produced shows, from Modern Family to The Office, it owes some of its success to reality television.

The show follows LAPD cops and detectives, and if it’s even possible, the show has gotten better in its fourth season, which is incredible considering it was actually cancelled by NBC before the network aired the first episode of its second season. TNT rescued the show, and though its budget decreased, its storytelling has only gotten stronger. It’s raw television in the truest sense of the word: violent, dramatic, complicated, emotional, suspenseful.

Producers use real-life, off-duty LAPD officers and former gang members as extras, and Southland is filmed like a documentary reality series, although its characters’ universe does not include a film crew so there’s no awareness they’re being filmed (like on Parks & Recreation).

That reality TV feel was intentional, and unlike Modern Family co-creator Steven Levitan’s contempt for the genre that made his show possible, its producers acknowledge that influence and connection.

Executive producer Christopher Chulack told the Los Angeles Times, “I wanted ‘Southland’ to feel immediate, like a ride-along, and to make it the closest thing possible to a cop reality show. We’ve got real cops out there every day. A lot of times we’ll say, ‘You guys just do what you normally do and we’ll film it.’”

Even better, its realism and quality are the direct result of reality TV’s influence. Executive producer John Wells told the paper, “Because of all the reality shows, viewers have a higher standard; they’re very aware of something that seems artificial. …We wanted to do something that was real — and maybe it was a little too real for NBC … and for some viewers who want a simple black-and-white show: the bad guy has to be stopped and the good guy will stop them.”

Southland’s first three seasons are on DVD, and you can watch all four seasons and episodes online or download them from iTunes. Definitely worth watching–or watching again.

about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.