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Ben McKenzie Previews Southland Season 5, "Descent Into Dubious Territory"

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Southland Season 5 gets underway tonight on TNT.

What can fans expect from one of the most underrated dramas on television?

In the following exclusive interview, star Ben McKenzie previews an intense story arc for his character, while also explaining why it’s important that the show not become too soapy...

Ben Sherman Scene

TV Fanatic: When the new season opens up, Sherman’s ego is a little wrapped up in this celebrity he has. What’s coming for him in these new episodes?
Ben McKenzie: Part of the story we’re telling is about this guy who started off so green and naïve and kind of do-gooderish, really. He joined the force to make a difference, to finally sort of create justice, to help enforce justice in the world. And then over the subsequent seasons, he gets more and more cynical as to his ability to actually do anything positive. And then when he goes out…starts sort of going outside the line and doing things that are morally dubious or unethical, he’s rewarded for it. And that’s what your first episode is.

And that’s actually what a lot of the cops tell us all the time is that the most dangerous cops on the streets are P2s because they’re not probationary officers anymore. They’re not being graded by their training officer and they’re not old…they have this kind of invincibility thing. They think they can get away with anything, and that makes them incredibly dangerous. So the story we’re telling is about his sort of descent into morally and ethically dubious territory.

TVF: Watching the new episodes, I couldn’t help thinking what if Sherman keeps doing these not-so-good things? But somehow he could end up getting rewarded or patted on the back when he should be getting busted.
BM: That’s the kind of thing that [Executive Producer/Director] Chris Chulack and I have always talked about with the character is what if you take a guy who’s very ambitious, who’s very capable, who is, sort of through nobody’s fault…well, the department’s fault because they keep awarding him for this, but how are they to know exactly.

We’re sort of commenting a little bit, in a very subtle way, on kind of the modern media machinery of this killing [from the season finale] and then it somehow gets into the press, and the press takes it as it was just an honorable killing, and he was killing this guy in self defense.

All of a sudden the department realizes that they’ve got a publicity angle, and they give him an award. And Ben, being an ambitious guy, of course, is going to run with that. And all of a sudden, Ben’s on the recruiting posters for the LAPD…it gives him all the wrong rewards and so he continues to kind of feel like he can do whatever he wants.

TVF: Ben and Sammy (Shawn Hatosy) also have this tense relationship where at times they’re like brothers and then other times they have these stare downs. Talk to me about what we’ll see with them this season.
BM: It becomes a marriage. You spend more time with your partner than you do with your significant other and so it’s just a complicated relationship. I mean, they love each other one minute and they completely trust each other on a certain gut level. And then Ben or Sammy, but usually Ben, might do something to violate that trust through his behavior and that really creates a huge chasm. You can feel like you’re completely alone out there even though your partner’s sitting three feet away in the car from you. And so we don’t really have that kind of nice ebb and flow where at times they’ll be thick as thieves and at times they’ll be completely distant.

TVF: Will we ever see Ben in any kind of healthy relationship? He just doesn’t seem to know how to do that from what we’ve seen.
BM: No. What you will see is several relationships. And they’ll be, I think, honest to where he is in his life, which is he’s a bit of a mess. Outwardly, he’s got it all together, right? He’s literally the poster boy for the LAPD and he’s rising through the ranks. I’m sure he has plenty of ambitions to be much more than just a patrol cop, and at the same time, inwardly, he’s a mess.

TVF:  Last year there was a story where you guys were all pranking each other and it was just kind of a light, fun part of the show. Is there anything like that this season?
BM: I did love that episode. I thought it was great, and it’s very realistic. Cops do that all the time. Not quite the same way, but there are definitely…this is a darker season, but there are definitely times when it’s very silly and very kind of…it’s just silly. I don’t know how else to describe it. A lot of these garbage calls where you go on a silly call…somebody who’s just out of their mind or asking the cops for something that they have no business asking the cops to do. It isn’t their job to not get their…whatever…so there’ll be silly stuff, but there’s not a prank episode, per se. It’s just a bunch of goofy stuff that happens.

TVF: So much stuff happens on the show and to these characters, including yours, but it never feels soapy to me. Is that important to you that it doesn’t become soapy?
BM: It is. It’s very important to me. You know, I have done a show that some would argue was a little more soapy. [laughs, referring to The O.C.] I think that’s a wonderful experience. There’s a lot of appeal. A lot of people like that sort of thing, and I totally get why. But as an actor, I do prefer to try to live in what I perceive to be a more grounded place…even though we’re compressing the events and a lot of really fantastic things are happening to a very small group of people, car chases and shootouts and things like that, they’re all grounded in reality.

Southland airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on TNT.

Jim Halterman is the West Coast Editor of TV Fanatic and the owner of JimHalterman.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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Southland Quotes

It seems like it changes nothing... but every once and awhile, you get to take a bad guy off the streets for good. And that, my friend, is God's work.

John Cooper

Taking a life is a big deal to me.

Ben Sherman