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There are a lot of women on this force, both in uniform and plainclothes, and the way they are handled by the writers is refreshing.

The underdog Southland opens its third season 

Regina King (left) and Jenny Gago in "Southland"

Photo courtesy of TNT

Regina King (left) and Jenny Gago in "Southland"

Cop dramas—television's just lousy with 'em. How many do we really need, anyway?

There are still a few police shows that are worth your weeknight hour, so the real question is: What separates the good ones from the usual dreck?

Characters, mostly, as well as the things a good cop show doesn't do: overly rely on dissected corpses on coroners' tables and corny, macho "buddy" dialogue. My favorite cop drama these days is TNT's gritty Southland, which begins its third season on typically shaky ground (businesswise, that is) this Tuesday at the 10 p.m. grown-up hour.

The wobbly part this time is its budget, which has reportedly been trimmed back to basic-cable size by execs at TNT, although you couldn't tell by watching the premiere episode, "Let it Snow." The effects of cast cutbacks may become very apparent soon, though.

Given the stellar squad room that's been assembled here, that's a shame. But this show has had a tough time since it began life at NBC in early 2009 and only lasted seven episodes there before it was laid on the chopping block. Then TNT stepped in, and here we are.

Like FX's classic The Shield (which ended in 2008), the officers of Southland work the beat in LA. Unlike The Shield, most of the cops are not despicable. A few are troubled, certainly, but these guys and gals are strictly on the up-and-up.

Speaking of gals, there are a lot of women on this force, both in uniform and plainclothes, and the way they are handled by the writers is refreshing. Detectives Lydia Adams and Josie Ochoa (Regina King and Jenny Gago, respectively) are my current favorite police partners on television, and when they're on the screen together I'm reminded that this cop show was created by a woman, the Emmy-winning writer Ann Biderman (NYPD Blue).

The Southland writing team does its best work for these two, at least in the premiere. The cruising banter between them is unusually interesting for this kind of show; usually, it jumps off from the case at hand, which this time is a series of rape-murders.

In one instance, the case brings up a bit of a clash between them when Adams—who's very intense, mind you—can't understand why rape victims in the Latino community (where Ochoa is the partner automatically in charge of outreach) won't give up any information to police.

There are no blowup about it—these actors and their writers are too good for that. So they have their little disagreement, move on and kick some ass. Ochoa is apparently only a recurring character on this season, but I hope she recurs often. I also hope I get to see Adams run down some more suspects like she does in Episode 1. (When I write "kick ass," I mean kick ass.)

As for the rest of the crew, they're taking some names, too. Brawny, ham-fisted Officer John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz) is as scarily intimidating as ever, and it's a real vicarious thrill to watch him get in the face of a witness and inform him that he doesn't "give a shit" about any inconvenience caused by cooperation with police. He doesn't look so tough when dealing with his painkiller addiction, though, and it continues to burden his rookie partner, Officer Ben Sherman (Ben McKenzie). As with King and Gago, these two actors have crackling chemistry.

Gang task-force partners Sammy Bryant (Shawn Hatosy) and Nate Moretta (Kevin Alejandro) return as well, along with Officer Chickie Brown (Arija Bareikis), who strives to be the first woman to join a SWAT team and seems well on her way, based on her team-playing heroics in the season opener. Oh yeah, there's plenty of gunfire and cars crashing in this thing—hey, this smartly written, well-acted drama is still a cop show, and a fine one at that.

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