Photo: © 2009 NBC Universal, Inc.
Ben McKenzie in Southland.
“I didn't want the kind of fake redemption and ‘lessons learned’ approach to structure... I wanted to be able to move fluidly between characters, to have an almost baton passing quality to the storytelling.”
Biderman’s Beat
Written by Dylan Callaghan

The most revealing thing about executive producer Ann Biderman’s work on Southland, the new show that fills the empty timeslot left by NBC’s ER, is induced by an inane, impromptu question. The veteran film and TV writer explains how she spent six months prowling the starkest beats in Los Angeles with real-life cops and hanging out with their families and the families of those they protect and sometimes battle.

This wasn’t the typical movie star research tour -- an hour slouching distractedly in an unmarked sedan wearing overlarge shades and nursing a soy mocha latte. This was getting into it nearly every day, interacting with real people and seeing “deeply disturbing things.” This was blood, bodies, and battered wives.

Did all that time on the beat make you hardboiled?

“You never get hardboiled,” she replies matter-of-factly.

You don’t? I thought you did?

“No. Every crime is unique and freshly disturbing. It’s not like on television.”

Her tone is pure and even, like a person with a painful, learned respect for the messy, heartbreaking truth of crime. What’s odd is that Biderman, who made her first big splash with her Emmy-award winning work on the uber-cop show NYPD Blue, had a deeply bohemian, anti-cop upbringing. The writer spent much of her youth in the company of writers and musicians at the famed Chelsea Hotel in New York, where “Leonard Cohen was the boy next door,” and her mother’s home in Miami was a sort of halfway house for civil rights activists recently out of prison.

The screenwriter of films as dispirate as Primal Fear and Smilla’s Sense of Snow, spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about the unique narrative structure of Southland and how she doesn’t really know why she, of all people, is so good at cop stories.

Photo: © 2009 NBC Universal, Inc.
Michael McGrady in Southland.

So how do you get from such a bohemian, intellectual, even countercultural background to having such apparent expertise in law enforcement-related scripts?

I’m not exactly sure. My mother considered herself such an outsider -- she defined herself that way. I mean, she lived in one room without a bathroom for about 20 years... Alan Ginsberg was a close family friend. So I was brought up in this very unorthodox way. Law enforcement was always the enemy in my house, weirdly enough.

There must be some fascination borne of the fact that you grew up in the very antithesis of that…

Yeah, something like that. Maybe that was my form of rebellion. I marched before I could walk. I was kind of a red diaper baby. The FBI would come to our house in Miami when I was a kid because it was kind of an open house for people who were getting out of prison.

Beyond your background, as a woman, have you consciously tried to bring a fresh or female perspective to the genre, or have you just written?

You know I really haven’t. I’ve just written. I just never thought in terms of gender very much.

You just like good writing.

I do recognize that there aren’t many women, that this is traditionally a kind of male realm, but I never let that stop me. It was a profound interest. I followed what was interesting to me. I’m interested in other genres too, but for some reason, these seem to get made.

Southland takes a very post-modern, almost [Robert] Altman-esque approach to narrative. How would you describe that approach from a structural standpoint?

I didn't want the structure to be dictated by the crimes themselves. Some of the crimes will be “solved,” some won't, some impact the characters in a direct way, some don't. I didn't want the kind of fake redemption and “lessons learned” approach to structure either. I wanted to be able to move fluidly between characters, to have an almost baton passing quality to the storytelling.

Some characters might not appear for an episode or two. Since there is no central station where they all work, it didn't have to be defined by that either. There are sets of characters [patrol] who are first responders, gang cops, and detectives. There will be others as we need them, but those six main characters enable us to move through the city and tell the stories we need to tell. Not really serialized, although there will be strong arcs that the characters go through.

I’m a huge fan of Altman.

You’ve mentioned shows like The Shield that show how corrupting fighting crime can become, but what would you say your take on the cops here is?

I just wanted to look at their lives and how this job affects their lives. I did want to go home with them. As opposed to some shows where it’s never about that side and you simply see the case.