Elizabeth Mitchell, Regina King

Embrace your inner lizard. V is back for a second season tonight on ABC (9/8c), with a red tint in the air and an ominous shower of red rain (the episode's title) falling on the embattled earthlings, although on my screener, everything looked orange. The color of cheese.

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If this alien-adventure melodrama were any more cartoonish, you might expect the Road Runner to "Beep Beep!" behind the evil Anna the next time she's foiled. There's a moment early on in Tuesday's episode when we glimpse the hybrid spawn of Ryan and the late (and unlamented) Val, floating in a spooky tank. For an instant, I flashed on Torchwood: Children of Earth, a modern classic that had everything V lacks: smart writing, unpredictable plotting, and an authentic sense of terror and urgency, involving characters that instantly grip you with their depth of emotion. Given how cardboard most of this show's humans are (even Elizabeth Mitchell, who was so terrific on Lost), you wonder what the V's could possibly see in them.

And as I watch yet another hour of portentous posturing, as Anna blabs on about "the magnitude of what is coming" while the rebels of the Fifth Column counterplot against them, I can't help also wonder what in the world the V's are waiting for. When Anna declares, "I may wear the skin, but I never forget what we are beneath," I find my own skin itching. For something to happen! (Although when Anna does let her skin down, she reveals what a mighty piece of tail she has. Just saying.)

This is the kind of show that waits until the last minute of an episode to reveal a long-awaited character whose return has already been written about exhaustively. There's no surprise to this, just a sense of resignation that such a hokey climax is the way these shows are supposed to work. Which doesn't make V a terrible show, just a terribly ordinary one.

At best, V is a silly guilty pleasure. Whereas the adult pleasures found in the new season of TNT's Southland, which also begins Tuesday (10/9c), come from watching a show flourish in the transition from a network it was too good for (NBC) to a cable home that, for the moment, welcomes its starkly realistic depiction of police work. Like ABC's underrated Detroit 1-8-7, which shares the same time period, Southland teems with authenticity, benefiting from location filming on the streets, freeways, underpasses and back alleys of Los Angeles.

There is nothing heightened or cheapened by contrivance as the detectives and patrol cops go about their often sordid business. Prickly detective Lydia Adams (the terrific Regina King) has to adjust yet again to a new partner, an arrogant and reckless, yet often effective, woman (Jenna Gago) who won't let Lydia behind the wheel. It's the observational moments that really score on Southland. And that's especially true whenever we spend time riding along in the patrol car operated by John Cooper of the chronically aching back (Michael Cudlitz, the breakout star of this ensemble) and his driven young partner Ben Sherman (Ben McKenzie, a world away from The O.C.).

I'd be content if Southland consisted of nothing but Cooper and Sherman on patrol. Their testy partnership, complicated by issues of class (Sherman is from a rich family) and sexuality (Cooper is quietly gay), is fascinating to watch, and there's palpable tension in their daily grind, even at its most routine. In the opening hour, they go from the depths of banality (a belligerent woman returning a doll, a flirtation traffic stop) to the chaotic danger of crossfire in the aftermath of a police shooting. You never know what the next call will bring, and the immediacy is riveting.

Southland isn't a perfect show. The subplots for the detectives played by Shawn Hatosy (with Emily Bergl as his insufferable wife) and Kevin Alejandro feel even more tangential now, and the self-consciously bleeped profanities feel artificially imposed. The show is plenty edgy enough already. So much so that it's not ever likely to reap the robust ratings of TNT blockbusters like The Closer or Rizzoli & Isles. But I hope this quiet, gritty gem finds its niche here. It would be a crime for it not to.

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