03/13/2012 07:05 pm ET Updated May 13, 2012

Southland Is the Season's Most Improved Show

The year is still young, but my early choice for most improved returning series of 2012 is TNT's gritty cop drama Southland, currently finishing up its fourth season. I can't recall another series that made several key changes so far into its run and emerged much better than it had ever been.

Beginning with its first season, which unfortunately was on then hit-repelling NBC, this saga of Los Angeles detectives and street cops was too grim and serious for its own good. That's not to say that its cast and production values weren't always first rate. But in its efforts to be as darkly realistic as possible it often became too depressing for weekly consumption. At least that's how I felt about it. Apparently I wasn't alone; Southland has always been somewhat ratings challenged, so much so that many industry observers didn't expect it to last as long as it has.

Thank goodness TNT stepped up to save this deserving series and that it identified Southland as a program worth supporting on its road to near-greatness. (I use that term because it isn't great in the way of other groundbreaking cop dramas like Hill Street Blues and The Shield, but it is a genre standout nevertheless.) It has always been and remains unapologetically adult, pushing the limits of language (while beeping the really bad words) and more recently loosening up in the sex and nudity department. It's not quite FX-bold, but it's getting there.

This season we've seen the trimming of its primary cast, which has served to heighten the contributions of its central players and intensify their characters, specifically Ben McKenzie as Ben Sherman, a rookie cop with a big heart and a hot temper; Regina King as Detective Lydia Adams, who this season is struggling to keep her unexpected pregnancy a secret at work; Michael Cudlitz as veteran cop John Cooper, now recovering from a dependency on painkillers, and especially Shawn Hatosy as Sammy Bryant, an arrogant detective who decided to go back to being a beat cop after his partner was murdered.

In addition to a reduction in the number of characters, the show's narrative deck has been reshuffled: Sherman is now partnered with Bryant, Cooper is teamed with veteran cop Jessica Tang (Lucy Liu in what may be the best role of her career to date) and Adams is working with Ruben Robinson (Dorian Missick), a family man and Afghanistan war vet who is now a detective trainee. Happily, C. Thomas Howell still shows up in some episodes as unrelentingly arrogant Officer "Dewey" Dudek.

McKenzie and Hatosy are terrific together, especially when their characters are giving each other a hard time, in the process bringing some much needed humor to the show. Cudlitz and Liu also have great chemistry. Their characters are learning how to work together and help each other navigate their returns to the force after suffering intense personal traumas (his drug addiction, her brutal assault one year earlier). In recent episodes they have suffered fresh crises: In pursuit of a suspect, Liu's Officer Tang shot a teenager who stupidly pulled a toy gun on her, almost killing the boy, while Cudlitz's Officer Cooper was savagely assaulted while breaking up a fight.

The Cooper assault, in which a man resisted arrest by biting Cooper and attempting to tear open his throat, was as horrifying as anything I have seen this season on The Walking Dead, perhaps because such things really happen.

This column continues over at MediaPost.