In “Graduation Day,” the season three finale of Southland screened last night for a small crowd at the Paley Center in Beverly Hills, the scene in which Officer Dewey Dudek chokes a prostitute wasn't exactly written into the script. Executive Producer Christopher Chulack told the actress to run down the street unexpectedly, just to see what C. Thomas Howell, who plays Dudek, would do.

It's a trick he apparently pulls often on set. Actor Michael Cudlitz, who stars as Officer John Cooper, confirmed: “He does that all the time. He tells people to run off. Or attack us.”

It's that spontaneity — that willingness to work within a certain amount of chaos — that leads the cast and execs to believe that Southland could be the most realistic cop drama ever made. And it's not just them. A Santa Barbara police dispatcher seated front and center concurred. “We use your show as training videos,” she told the panel.

Last night's panel was made up of the show's lead actors Ben McKenzie, Regina King, Michael Cudlitz and Shawn Hatosy, as well as executive producers Christopher Chulack and John Wells. It was moderated by Cynthia Littleton, deputy editor at Variety, who began the discussion by saying, “This is the cop show we needed to come along.”

But 'come along' was something the show did slowly. Its first two seasons ran on NBC, which eventually canceled it. Chulack and Wells indicated that network executives wanted to take the show in a direction they thought it shouldn't go (but didn't go into too much more detail). Soon after, TNT picked it up, and allowed for a more focused 10-episode season as opposed to a 22-episode schedule typical to networks. As Wells put it, “TNT allowed us to make the show we always wanted to make.”

What Southland's creators wanted, so it seemed, was a show that painted as real a picture as possible of not just cop life, but of the heart and soul of Los Angeles. “L.A. is really the star of the show,” King said.

She's completely correct. Southland is all over town, all over real L.A. streets. Signs for Venice Blvd., Pico and Alvarado whiz across the screen as a police car takes a hard left and speeds away. Sometimes the camera can barely keep up. As the producers explained, the show is shot to look like a docudrama in an attempt to make the viewer feel like they're watching an episode of Cops, or even the local news. It's one of many tactics used to evoke a sense of realism. The cast, of course, has been to boot camp. They've been trained by real policemen and women, who also work as extras on the show. A cop couple — a husband and wife team — act as consultants, assuring that the characters are coming across like real patrol officers, detectives, or whatever the role may call for.

Many of the crime scenes are based on stories told by real L.A. officers as well. Recently one of the writers was told about a chihuahua killed in a drive-by shooting. “Don't be surprised if that ends up in a script,” Wells quipped.

To add to the sense of authenticity, a few less obvious tricks are also employed. Certain expletives are spoken and then bleeped out, which is an unusual choice for a scripted show. There's also no score of any kind; in fact, most of the soundtrack is made up of noises captured as the scene is shot. This, combined with a great deal of handheld camera work, makes for a show that feels a bit like The Office sans camera glances. And with a lot more blood.

Yes, the show is about solving crimes. It's also about the psychology of the officers — the series of events in each of their lives that leads up to the split-second decisions they make everyday. But it's also about the rush that comes from chasing down the bad guy. As Littleton noted, “I defy any show to pack more activity into 44 minutes.”

Follow Ali Trachta on Twitter @MySo_CalLife.

LA Weekly