EXCLUSIVE: Ben McKenzie Delves Deep Into Southland Season 2
Ben McKenzie talks about resuscitating the once-canceled series for its limited TNT run
Both Southland fans, and the show alike, have had a rough go of it since the police procedural hit TV screens late last spring. Created by Ann Biderman, Southland erupted like a short blast of gunfire in a crowded gymnasium. Meant as a thematic follow-up to NBC's popular hospital drama ER, the show quickly amassed a huge fanbase throughout its initial seven-episode run. It was set to return in the fall with a leaner, meaner set of storylines. During production on Season Two's sixth episode, NBC pulled the plug on Southland, leaving its fate in limbo as producers hurried to find a new home for it. TNT quickly stepped up to bat, nabbing the unaired episodes, as well as the first season for re-air.
With newly added footage and less censored dialogue, TNT began airing the repurposed episodes in January. Now, with the series gaining new admires and reigniting the passion of older fans, the network is ready to debut those six all-new episodes NBC had originally slated to run back in September. Starting March 2nd, the further adventures of the Southland crew will continue with S02E01: "Phase Three", which finds Officer Ben Sherman (Ben McKenzie) completing his probation period before being pulled into a riot alongside his drug-addled partner Officer John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz) and the troubled Chickie Brown (Arija Bareikis). This intense installment will be followed by S02E02: "Butch and Sundance" on March 9th, which finds gangland Detectives Nate Moretta (Kevin Alejandro) and Sammy Bryant (Shawn Hatosy) joining a stake-out while Detective Lydia Adams acclimates herself to the idea of accepting a new partner into life after the shooting injury of Detective Russell Clarke (Tom Everett Scott).
We recently caught up with Ben McKenzie to find out more about the upcoming Season Two episodes, as well as the fate of the series, which has still not been picked up by TNT for production at this time. Here's what our favorite O.C. alum had to say:
Right off the bat, where does the series stand as far as shooting new episodes? Is there a set plan in place to get you guys back in front of the camera sometime soon?
Ben McKenzie: The set plan is that you write an amazing article. That attracts a ton of fans. They all watch. We get great ratings. And the show gets renewed. That's the plan we've got. What do you think? Do you think we can pull it off? It's a real testament to the fans that we wound up at TNT. I don't think they would have taken the show if it weren't for the fans. We are very grateful. All up and down. Everyone in both the cast and the crew. Everybody's vocal outpouring of support has saved the show. Basically, TNT is waiting for the second season to air in March before deciding the fate of the series. It will be based on the ratings, and an accommodation of the reviews. And how vocal the fans are. It will basically be like every other TV show. We just have to get those ratings. I hope we do. I think we will. We do appreciate all the support. It's a combination of the fans and the critics who have allowed the show to even have a second life on TNT. Without them we would have just been another causality of the whole NBC-Leno...What ever it is you want to call that thing. I don't want to say catastrophe. Let's just call it..."that situation."
Ann has stated in the past that the first seven episodes where meant to be a serialized movie that works on its own accord. That you could have ended it at the end of last season, and it would stand on its own. How does that compare to these upcoming six episodes in season two? Is there more of a story arch that you guys were building towards that isn't so easily resolved with the final episode that you shot?
Ben McKenzie: Yes. You are right. When NBC renewed us for a second season, they asked for thirteen episodes. So that's what we thought we had as a minimum. Because of that, we wanted to do a more traditionally arched storyline. Like you might see on any other character based TV show where you'd have a longer run to flesh out some of the dynamics between the characters. So that you could get to know them better. So that there would be some ebb and flow. And some evolution in the various plot lines. We were in the middle of doing number six when they cancelled us. We finished up that episode, and we were done. This has been a real exercise in patience, working on this show. As I would imagine everyone will tell you, we all love making the show. We genuinely like making it because it's a fun show to make. But it seems like every time we get started, we get stopped right in the middle of it. When we initially shot the pilot, we were set to replace ER mid-season. But we only ended up replacing them in the second half of the mid-season for a total of seven episodes. They then picked us up and ordered thirteen more. We only shot six of those. We are longing for the day when we can shoot a full thirteen episodes in order. And reward the fans that have been loyal with what the show was always meant to be. Which is a long-run character drama. Where you see people's lives change drastically over the course of multiple seasons. You will be able to follow them much as you followed the doctors on ER as they evolved over the years. We want to reward the viewers for their loyalty to the show and the characters. Otherwise, there is no way a show like ours can compete with the stand-alone type shows where there is a crime, the characters solve the crime, and everyone goes home happy. We are doing a fundamentally different type of show. And it needs time to grow. It needs more time to get people hooked on it.
The storyline involving Trinny Day is being set up in the first two new episodes as a long sting operation. Do Ben and John eventually get involved in this particular storyline, and does it evolve and resolve itself? Or is it going to be one of those loose threads that are left hanging after the end of the second season?
Ben McKenzie: That is a good question. I don't know the answer to that, to be honest with you. It occurs over multiple episodes. But I am not sure what you would consider resolution. It is not my plotline, so I don't know as much about it. I really can't tell you much more than that. I don't think Ben and John are going to get that involved. What we are trying to do is provide opportunities where the show can be separated into pairings. Just like the LAPD itself. You've got two patrol officers that roll around in the same car together. And you got two gang detectives. And two regular detectives. We are trying to provide more opportunities for those pairings to interact. And to overlap. People like to see the cops working together. At the same time, we are trying to keep the show realistic. We're not trying to do a show where we all work as one big team to uncover the evil guy behind whatever crime was committed. This is a slightly more realistic scenario. One where there will be some overlap, but not all the time. As patrol officers, John and Ben aren't investigating. We're first responders to a given situation, but it is not our job to follow-up once a crime has been committed. That job is left to the detectives. As you saw in the second episode, where we came upon this guy whose home has been broken into, and his family has been killed. We have to leave once we hand it over to the detectives. They basically say, "You guys go home. Leave. We can handle this." That is frustrating for the patrol officers sometimes. They feel personally invested in the outcome. But it's just not their job to follow it up.
I love the scene in an upcoming episode where Ben and John happen upon a guy peeing on the sidewalk. They want to give him a ticket for an open container, but the public urination isn't ever mentioned at all. Living in Silver Lake, you quickly learn that public urination and defecation is something that can't be ticket, and reflecting this adds a great deal of realism to the show. Do you guys look at all of the little laws and procedures before carrying out a particular scene?
Ben McKenzie: I actually wasn't aware of the urination defecation law. But the writers are aware of that stuff. What is fun about the show is that we flip the established rules of police procedural shows. We are flipping that on its head. We aren't doing what is expected. Often, the crime isn't being solved entirely. Because a lot of the times, these crimes go unsolved. Or it's not being solved in a satisfactory way. We don't have the one bad guy that did something evil, and we catch him at the end of the episode. Where you can turn your TV off, and everything is right with the world. We're trying to be a little bit more ambiguous. Sometimes, people do things for a variety of reasons. There is a lot of gray. You don't always resolve the situation in a way that allows you to sleep easily at night. Sometimes the person that did the crime isn't the person you wish had done it. I know I'm rambling, but moral ambiguity is what we are trying to get across as well.
After watching what happened between Chickie and her partner Billy Dewey, it becomes obvious that John is prepping Ben on proper partner etiquette. How are John's back pain issues and sexuality going to affect his relationship with Ben in the future? And how do you think that it is going to affect Sherman's decisions as a police officer?
Ben McKenzie: We were going to get into that right after we were cancelled. What you will see in these six episodes is that Ben is coming to understand John a little better with each passing day. He's discovering what makes his partner tick. The issue is drugs and John's pill popping for his back. We will also find out more about his sexuality in a way that I think is handled subtly and realistically, and actually quite beautifully. They know each other better and better. They almost start to actually like each other. Which is a strange dynamic. It's a relationship that goes in fits and starts. It doesn't follow one smooth path of them platonically falling in love with each other as partners. Its much more complicated than that. One thing we eventually wanted to get to, that we will if we get new episodes on TNT, is flipping the tables and having Ben need to take care of John in a situation of John's own making. Where he falls victim to his own demons. And Ben has to be the more levelheaded of the two. We didn't quite get there in the episodes that were shot. Hopefully they renew us so there are some new avenues to explore on this front.
In the third episode, you are forced to ride alone on patrol for the first time. What can we expect to see out of Ben during this solo mission?
Ben McKenzie: I am really proud of that episode. It's S02E03: U-Boat, which is when an officer rides alone in a black and white patrol car. Usually, two cops will ride together. In this particular episode, John has to handle another situation. So he throws the keys of the car to me and says, "You're on your own, kid." It's cool. Another little step in my character's evolution. We see his ability to do this work on his own. He is tested pretty severely. As our show is want to do. Right off the bat, Ben gets into a pretty gnarly situation. I don't know how much more I can say about the events that transpire. Much like S02E01: Phase Three is ticking off another step on his growth and maturation, S02E03: U-Boat is another notch on the ladder. One thing that is interesting about the show is seeing how tough it is for police officers that go out there thinking they are doing good in the world. That they are bettering the world and making it a more just place. Seeing how those dreams are often dashed by the work they do. That they can't make a situation better. That they can't make justice out of a world that is fundamentally unjust. You will see some of that in S02E03: U-Boat.
Let's talk about Sherman's love life. This aspect of his personal life seems very difficult. Will we see him going on an actual date without storming off? And will there be more to his friendship with Chickie? Or will she keep herself off limits? Or is there a possibility that Lydia and Sherman might hook up?
Ben McKenzie: (Laughs) Yeah. Right. Ben will have some sexual encounters. But I don't think we've found, nor do we want, the one single ongoing passionate love affair type-thing. We try to define that, but I don't think we have found out what that is for him. At the same time, I think it is realistic, and that it makes good television, to have love affairs and a certain amount of sex in the show. Sex? Cops need that too. They are people that might even need it more, because at the end of a very long, hard, traumatic day, a person needs a little release. Sometimes that comes from a healthy long-term relationship. Sometimes that comes from meeting a person in a bar and taking them home. And releasing some tension. It will manifest itself in different ways. In the six new episodes that you will see, there isn't a long-term love affair. But there is some sexual expression.
How surreal has it been shooting in actual Los Angeles locations? I know that a tour bus came upon you and Taylor Handley, who played Oliver on The O.C., only to see you in a police uniform arresting him. Did they think you were actually arresting Oliver for being such a horrible person to Marissa? How did that scene play out?
Ben McKenzie: That was the second or third day of filming. That happened early on during the pilot. We were on Sunset boulevard, John and I. We pulled over this kid doing an illegal U-turn in a yellow Lamborghini. He was played by my friend Taylor Handley, who, as you know, appeared in several episodes of The O.C. He gets out of the car, and he starts to get arrested. His character recognizes my character, and he calls me Ben. Which is both my real name and my character's name. He says, "Ben! Dude, are you an actor?" Of course, in real life, I am an actor. But it's a line in the script. As he is saying that, a tour bus pulls up with tourists popping pictures of the TV show in progress. It was very surreal. It was a moment where I was like, "Yes. I am Ben. But I'm not the Ben you think I am. I'm actually Ben Sherman. Yes, Ben McKenzie is an actor. But He is playing a cop in a cop show." And this is all going on while I talk to a guy that I did my other show with. It was all too weird for me.
I was a big fan of the O.C., and I would have found this pretty strange had I happened upon this scene. Especially since you're arresting Oliver, who wasn't very popular on the show. Or, rather, I should say, he played a good villian.
Ben McKenzie: Yes. He did play a good villain. Its tricky playing a villian on a soap opera. People do have a negative understanding of you that is totally unfair. Handley has a habit of playing rather douchey characters. He is a nice guy in real life. He must be pretty talented as an actor.}
He's a pretty great douche in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Ben McKenzie: Yes. I have not seen that one yet. But he did tell me about it.
Patrick Fischler said that Southland works closely with the Crips, and that they often appear as extras. What sort of influence have they had on the set? And do you feel a certain sense of protection from them? Like, if I spray paint a penis on a Ben McKenzie movie poster, are the Crips going to come after me?
Ben McKenzie: (Laughs) I don't know that they necessarily influence my character. Patrick and those guys work a lot with the Crips because they are gang detectives. Its Patrick and Shawn Hatosy and Kevin Alejandro that are doing gang work. So that's their extension to it. We do have a lot of supposed ex-gang members playing gang members on the show. It certainly adds another element of realism, and makes for some great 'between take' conversation. I don't know how much the writers are soliciting the gang guys for plot. I know they talk a lot with the cops, and they get a lot of stories from the real gang detectives that they see. I would imagine that the Crips do have some influence. The writers are very interested in getting both sides of the story. They are not just trying to tell the cops point of view on a story. Yet, obviously, the show is mainly told through the cops. It's their take on things.