Television was once regarded as a low-culture medium — a form of entertainment for the masses, not for those with discernment or taste. While TV programming has changed immensely over the last 60 years, television is sometimes still seen through that lens, despite the tremendous strides made by cable and traditional networks. Recent "reality" programming hasn't helped the cause.
Each month, The Root will bring you television shows that are worth watching. Here are a few we're watching now (all times are Eastern Standard Time).
Tuesday 10 p.m., TNT
Southland, starring Regina King, Ben McKenzie, Shawn Hatosy and Michael Cudlitz, is by far one of the best shows on television in the United States. It follows the personal and professional lives of the cops who patrol the streets of Los Angeles. Stylistically, the show does a great job representing the ugliness of the criminals in the city against a backdrop of blue skies, sun-drenched neighborhoods and palm trees. It convincingly portrays, through its characters and realistic storylines, the complexity of being a cop and trying to maintain a "normal" life or relationship with friends and family.
The show also takes an unflinching look at the challenges of being a cop through characters such as Detective Lydia Adams — played by King — who must balance work with personal responsibilities for her family; and officer Chickie Brown, played by Arija Bareikis, who is trying to be the first woman on SWAT. The cognitive dissonance of the characters is reflected in the sound editing of the show.
Like Boomtown, perhaps the best TV cop show ever, NBC unceremoniously canceled Southland. Luckily, however, TNT resuscitated it, and we now have the opportunity to watch a cop show that far exceeds any other on mainstream television.
Why you should watch: A cop-show lover's dream — Boomtown meets The Shield — with impeccable acting and stories that make you care about the characters and the community.
The Good Wife
Tuesday 10 p.m., CBS
The Good Wife is a good show, stacked with a great cast that includes Julianna Margulies, Christopher Noth, Christine Baranski and Michael Ealy. It follows the life of Alicia Florrick (played by Margulies), the wife of jailed politician Peter Florrick (Noth), whose life and political career went down in flames because of a political scandal. Florrick publicly stands by her man, while privately taking control of her life. A lawyer, she returns to work at an elite law firm — which means she has to navigate the sharks in the firm as well as those who have publicly decimated her private life — while rebuilding her career and credibility.
Ealy convincingly plays the role of Derrick Bond, a lawyer who is venomous in his pursuit of power. Dreamgirl's Anika Noni Rose guest-starred on the show this season as Wendy Scott-Carr, a dynamic lawyer and young mother running for district attorney against a newly freed Peter Florrick. And then there's Archie Panjabi as Kalinda, one of the law firm's investigators — and one of TV's more complex creations. She is definitely not your stereotypical Indian female character.
Why you should watch: The performances — some subtle, like Margulies', and some impassioned, like Ealy's — and its ability to show the complexities of political life without judgment.
Law and Order: UK
Friday 9 p.m., BBC America
By far the best of the franchise, especially since the original Law & Order went off the air last year, Law & Order UK is quite brilliant. While it follows the formula of the Law & Order series — cops and district attorneys joined together to investigate and prosecute crimes — UK does it in a way that is cerebral and provocative.
The cops on this show don't have a moral filter and sometimes behave as if guilt really is a wasted emotion. The show gives you a peek into the complex British judicial system, with lawyers arguing before judges while wearing traditional court attire — including white wigs. The actors manage to deliver great performances while maintaining the respect for the court for which the British judicial system is known.
Freema Agyeman plays a black district attorney who is about her business. She doesn't mince words or allow her colleagues or opponents to undermine her authority. Add a slick setting — you've never seen a police station look like this, even on CSI Miami — quick editing and a pace that moves the story and the viewer along, and you've got a hit on your hands.
Why you should watch: Familiar in its setup but still manages to feel completely different in its execution — more like a motion picture than a TV series — while showing just how tired the U.S. franchises are.
One to Watch (Maybe):
Premiered Sunday, March 6, 10 p.m., A&E
Breakout Kings is a brand-new series about a crew of ex-cons who solve crimes. Frustrated by bureaucracy and orthodox approaches to law enforcement, U.S. marshals Charlie Duchamp (Laz Alonso of Avatar and Fast and the Furious) and Ray Zancanelli (Domenick Lombardozzi of The Wire) decide to try something new: They rustle up a special task force of former fugitives, each with a special skill, to catch other fugitives who have yet to change their ways.
The crew consists of the three most elusive convicts Zancanelli ever captured: Lloyd Lowery (Jimmi Simpson), a former child prodigy and behaviorist-psychiatric expert who excels in psychoanalysis; Shea Daniels (Malcolm Goodwin), an ex-gangbanger who knows how to work the system, both in prison and on the street; and Erica Reed (Serinda Swan), a sexy expert tracker who learned her trade from her bounty-hunter father. Duchamp and Zancanelli also employ the services of Julianne Simms (Brooke Nevin), a civilian who acts as the "funnel" for the group — all information, tips and data go through her.
Hopefully the show won't be reduced to a cliché but will demonstrate the complex world of U.S. marshals. We like the unusual premise, and the fact that it features a black actor in the lead (Alonso) and in a supporting role (Goodwin). We'll keep you posted.
Nsenga Burton is editor-at-large for The Root. She also serves as cultural critic for Creative Loafing and is an assistant professor of communication and media studies at Goucher College in Baltimore. Follow her on Twitter.