Drama, comedy, reality: This is one of those nights where TV is firing on all cylinders.
Let's start with the heavy lifting. One of TV's most encouraging survival stories returns with the fifth-season premiere of TNT's uncommonly gritty police drama Southland (10/9c), a network reject (from NBC's darkest period) that thrives on cable, with a sharper focus and a determined avoidance of procedural cliché.
Each episode is like a graphic tour of duty on the streets of Los Angeles, and in the opener, it's not always immediately clear if the patrol cops and detectives in the line of fire are witnessing a real crime or make believe or some other sort of scam. (One vignette involving a brawl between naked men in a sauna looks like an outtake from Spartacus.) "Treat it like a circus," seasoned training office John Cooper (Michael Cudlitz) advises his latest ride-along, an Afghan War vet with too much attitude. The media circus threatens to consume Cooper's former partner Ben Sherman (Ben McKenzie), newly decorated and enjoying the attention a bit too much. Grounding these characters in the mundane distractions of unblemished real life, Detective Lydia Adams (Regina King) is adjusting to single motherhood with her usual weary impatience, while Ben's combustible partner Sammy Bryant (Shawn Hatosy) wrangles bitterly over child custody with his estranged wife (Emily Bergl returning to a thankless role).
The randomness of the action and the sense of futility (most notable in Lydia's dealings with a male rape victim) distinguish Southland from run-of-the-mill cop dramas, but its downbeat tone and often non-linear approach — when did Cooper's "confirmed bachelor" status change? — make it better suited for a long life on cable. "It sucks when things look fake," says a guerilla filmmaker whose latest project gets busted in one of the more amusing anecdotes. Looking fake is not one of Southland's problems.
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HOUSE OF LIES: "Lie? What does that even mean to us?" cries Elizabeth (Keri Russell) to her husband Philip (Matthew Rhys) in the best-yet episode of FX's compelling spies-next-door drama The Americans (10/9c). Their marriage and entire life are built on pretense and the pretext of American-family normalcy, as they go about their duties as deeply embedded Russian spies. When they discover their fallen comrade left behind a wife and child he had told no one about, this secret exposes the fissures in their own relationship, exacerbated by the arrival of another spy with whom Elizabeth has a history. This episode also marks the arrival of the wonderful Margo Martindale (Emmy winner for Justified) as the couple's deceptively matronly new handler, who likes to take "a more personal approach with my operatives." Philip calls her "Granny," but she's no doddering pushover.
TEAM PLAYERS: Secrets also bedevil the management of the pro-football Hawks as USA Network's Necessary Roughness (10/9c) nears the end of its season, with the first of a two-part finale that challenges stereotypes as it confronts the issue of closeted gay players in this macho environment. Dr. Dani (Callie Thorne) is at the center of things, as usual, as she observes her latest client's dilemma: sacrifice his privacy as the first openly gay active player in the NFL or doom his relationship: "I don't want to be Jackie Robinson. I just want to play ball." Is it just coincidence that in another subplot, the latest step in TK's (Mehcad Brooks) rehab involves swallowing his pride and stepping up to the ballet barre? Man up, dude.
MORE DRAMA: On Valentine's eve, CBS' CSI (10/9c) throws a monkey wrench in Hodges' engagement to an Italian hottie, when the lab rat starts getting cold feet. ... Some very positive developments in ABC's Nashville (10/9c) lately, starting with Teddy asking Rayna for a divorce. Free at last! Signing doe-eyed songbirds Scarlett and Gunnar to her label? Another good move. And Juliette's crusade to reinvent her look and sound? After watching Taylor Swift's silly Alice-in-Cuckooland routine at the Grammys this weekend, who can blame her?
FOR LAUGHS: The only episode from ABC's Valentine-themed comedy lineup that was available for advance screening was The Middle (8/7c), and it's another winner. It's always fun watching Neil Flynn convey Mike's struggle to express his feelings to Frankie, but when a private text goes awry, he has to face up to his intimacy issues. (Sorry, taking the Christmas tree to the curb two months late isn't going to cut it.) Frankie is horrified to realize she's tossed all of weirdo son Brick's art projects over the years, including his handmade valentines, and when she wonders, "What kind of mother am I?," Mike responds: "According to Brick's school, not actively involved." As for lonely-heart Poor Sue, could she actually have a date to the school dance? The answer to that is no laughing matter.
The night's main event, though, may be the return of Clive Bixby and Juliana — the frisky fake personas of Phil and Claire Dunphy — on Modern Family(9/8c), and it's probably no surprise that their latest escapade ends in slapstick calamity. In other news, why is Haley's boyfriend Dylan now living with Mitchell and Cam? They'd surely like to know.
FOR REAL: While Fox's American Idol(8/7c) turns its attention to the girls for the next chapter of "Hollywood Week" with another two-hour installment (8/7c), can we pause to marvel at Nicki Minaj's masterful takedown last week of a contestant (previously seen on The Glee Project, though never mentioned) who used his final moment in the spotlight to again try to milk sympathy over his lack of height: "Sometimes things can go from being inspiring to becoming you wanting a pity party," Minaj snapped, before sending the boy home. Honest but not cruel, subverting the producers' tendencies to glorify every underdog, Minaj is the best thing to happen to Idol so far this season.
But Idol is about to get some competition from the genre's trailblazer, CBS' Survivor: Caramoan — Fans vs. Favorites(8/7c), kicking off with a 90-minute opener that pits veteran players ("Bikal") against longtime fans ("Gota"). Among the more familiar faces returning: last season's engaging Malcolm Freberg, the geek-tastic John Cochran, the bizarre Phillip Sheppard and the aggravating Brandon Hantz, nephew of the infamous Russell. Will Survivor never get over its obsession with this family?
THE WEDNESDAY GUIDE: Oscar nominee Hugh Jackman (Les Miserables) returns to Bravo's Inside the Actors Studio (8/7c) to regale host James Lipton with song, dance and professional anecdote. ... The syndicated Dr. Phil (check tvguide.com listings) meets 5-year-old Ethan Gilman, the Alabama boy kept captive in an underground bunker for nearly a week, and interviews his mother Jennifer Kirkland about the ordeal. ... PBS' Nova (check tvguide.com listings) looks at Earth From Space in a visually spectacular two-hour special. ... TLC's Hoarding: Buried Alive (9/8c) returns with the disturbing story of a single mom whose depression turned her cluttered home into a nightmare for her two sons. When the local Child Protective Services checks in, she has 48 hours to clean the mess up or risk losing her kids. And in TLC's ongoing celebration of the human spirit (I jest), a new season of My Strange Addiction (10/9c) introduces a couple hooked on coffee enemas and a woman who can't stop eating her cat's fur. Come back, Honey Boo Boo Chile, all is forgiven.