Interview with Regina King, star on TNT’s ‘Southland’ (starts up Tuesday Jan. 12)

A decade ago, the gritty Los Angeles police drama “Southland” might have been a huge hit on No. 1 network NBC, a companion to classics such as “ER” and “West Wing.”

But last spring, with NBC languishing in fourth place, “Southland” opened without much fanfare and a seven-episode commitment. It averaged a modest 7 million viewers.

Nonetheless, NBC gave it six more episodes this past fall. It was set to air at 9 p.m. on a Friday, since the brass had cordoned off its weekday 10 p.m hour for Jay Leno, a blatant cost-cutting move signaling a major retreat by NBC from scripted TV.

Then the shocker: just two weeks before “Southland’s” scheduled return, NBC nixed it. Too dark, too expensive, given the ratings expectations on a Friday night.

But within hours, a white knight came calling: Atlanta’s TNT.

TNT quickly picked up all 13 episodes. An extended version of the pilot is airing Tuesday night at 10 p.m. The kinder, gentler cable model should help “Southland.” And if first-run episodes can average, say, four million viewers, TNT will likely give it another season.

This saga not only illustrates the shrinking fortunes of broadcast networks but the growing financial strength of top cable networks such as FX and TNT, which now regularly produce Emmy-worthy dramas such as “Sons of Anarchy” and “The Closer.”

"Nobody watches NBC anymore," said actress Regina King, in Atlanta last week to promote "Southland." For her, it's apropos that NBC's biggest show is called "The Biggest Loser."

King, with credits ranging from “Jerry Maguire” to “Ray,” plays the compassionate yet poised detective Lydia Adams, the lone major African-American character.

Stylistically, the drama uses shaky “NYPD Blue”-style handheld cams and quick-cut scenes.

“Some episodes we’ve had 100 locations,” she said. “We’d do seven in one day. We’d just jump out of a van and be in and out in 45 minutes. It’s guerrilla filming.”

Compared to feature films, King has much less downtime. “It’s definitely not boring,” she said. “We bring backpacks because you might not have time to go to your trailer until lunch.” And since they often use spaces that are open to the public, random folks can just walk on by, not realizing a TV show is even being shot. One time, she’s in the middle of a shoot and a patron comes by, looks at her and exclaims “Show me the money!” (Oh, yes, a Jerry Maguire reference.)

King, a native Los Angelino, said she’s been able to hit some old neighborhoods and has even run into people she hasn’t seen in years. The owner of a home they shot in was the father of King’s ex boyfriend from high school! Sadly, his son had died in a car accident a decade earlier. “We were both in tears,” she said.

For her own character, she is navigating a new partner, a major adjustment. “You spend more time with your partner than your spouse,” she said. “You’re used to that ying and yang thing finishing each other’s sentences. You have to have each other’s back… we see her struggling with that.”

Naturally, she can’t say enough good things about “Southland’s” savior TNT. “They really are into doing narrative TV,” she said. “They’ve truly captured that type of audience.” Her favorite show on the network is “Men of a Certain Age.” I noted that there isn’t a lot of crossover potential for the two shows. “I can’t see any of those guys in the ‘Southland’ world,” she mused.

Now the extra twist: with local TV affiliates balking, NBC is now planning to move Leno back to a later time slot and giving 10 p.m. back to scripted programming. “Southland” won’t be part of those plans.

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