SouthLAnd “Off-Duty”: How to be awesome

As regular viewers (and if you’re not, start now), you all know that SouthLAnd sets an extraordinarily high bar with every episode.

Sammy Bryant on the move, SouthLAnd style

Sammy Bryant on the move, SouthLAnd style

No other show is constructed and executed as tightly, precisely and brutally as this one. The scripts are taut, ferocious, bulletproof. The whole scriptwriting tenet of “get into the scene as late as possible and get out as soon as you can” is taken to a whole other level by the SouthLAnd writers’ room. They elevate that beyond being an artform; it’s writing like a martial art, where the slightest movement can result in you being slammed to the ground emotionally, winded, breathless. You can find yourself feeling sad without even knowing why, because they just pulled some of that ninja shit on you.

Point being, when I say that Zack Whedon’s script raised the bar again, I’m really saying something. It’s not easy for a new writer to the room to do that. It’s a testament to SouthLAnd‘s writer selection process that Whedon is the second scribe this season (after Aron Rahsaan Thomas) to ace their debut script.

Sure, he comes from Hollywood writing royalty. A veritable dynasty, if you will. You all know about his brother Joss (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Avengers to name just a few), their father, their grandfather. Another of the brothers, Jed, has been working with Joss for years, and has a major production role in the new S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot (which ABC needs to order to series like, now). Of course, that doesn’t guarantee that Zack would be able to knock it out the park; but the fact that he did, spectacularly so, isn’t entirely surprising.

One area which the show hasn’t quite been hitting the target this season has been the opening few minutes leading into the freeze/photo flash voiceover. They’ve lacked a certain oomph in season five, for the most part, compared to previous seasons. Zack changed all that, giving us just a brief glimpse of an off duty Sammy creeping up on an unseen perp screaming and firing a handgun at civilians. Staying off-duty is “easier said than done,” said the voiceover, followed by the customary title letting us know how many hours earlier the episode was jumping back. It’s usually in the double figures, 15, say, or 17; this episode was tight, and just took us back 5 hours. That immediately upped the pressure and the stakes, and in fact we reached Sammy’s off duty shooter moment in the middle of Act One.

Easier said than done

Easier said than done

This script meant business.

Sammy’s takedown of a huge, topless guy shooting at cars and taking a hostage set up a nice contrast to Sherman’s “poster boy” arc; “Come on,” Sherman tells Bryant shortly afterwards, “don’t tell me you didn’t love every minute playing bad-ass for those cameras.” Hatosy’s answering smile was pure gold; hell yeah he liked it. It was a nice character moment for these two, whose relationship has often been spiky and fraught. The continuing saga of Tammy’s assault charges against Sammy further bolstered the Sherman/Hatosy friendship, with Sherman unequivocally letting Bryant know he’s got his back.

Sherman’s relationship with Cooper was decidedly more frosty.

You can never go back

You can never go back

Only the writers know why, but the decision has been made to keep these two as icy and fractured as possible. It’s rough, given the emotional history that they have; the show was born from their TO/new boot relationship, and one of its biggest emotional payoffs was Sherman saving Cooper’s life by getting him to rehab. Since then, in two seasons, their only contact has been an awkward nod partway through season four, and the excruciating and heartbreaking conversation in this episode, which started awkwardly, ended abruptly, and played out with Sherman and Cooper at opposite ends of the bar, ignoring each other for the rest of the night (until Sherman got his booty call). It’s good drama, but it’s f**king annoying too. There’s surely a lot of mileage to had be had from playing the two of them off each other in a more sustained way as Sherman develops his true cop style while Cooper winds his down. Still, SouthLAnd thrives on moving forward relentlessly, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s sad that their bond is broken, but that’s the world of the show; things get broken, and you move on.

Whedon’s script played all of this to perfection though, along with Cooper’s increasing conflict at the prospect of possibly leaving the force, and in contrast to his short friendship with Ben, his deep, everlasting history and friendship with Dewey. Whedon did a great job with all their scenes, and gave Dewey all the best lines — Tommy Howell nailed every last one of of them in what was a bravura episode for him.

Cooper wasn’t the only one that Sherman wasn’t showing the love to. That booty call he followed up on wasn’t from Brooke, who he called his girlfriend for the first time at the start of the episode; it was from a girl he met on patrol.

Sherman's "oh shit I just called her my girlfriend" face

Sherman’s “oh shit I just called her my girlfriend” face

So giving a girl your card so she can call if she needs to is definitely #1 in the Sherman playbook. I hope they play this out; Annie Monroe, formerly of the pop-punk LA girl band The Like, has been a great addition to the cast, always making the most of her brief screen time with naturalistic charm and enviable snark.

But you know we have to talk about Regina.

Off-Duty was directed by the incredible Regina King, her first time behind the camera on SouthLAnd. And it wasn’t like they gave her an easy one to help her out of the gate. No way. This was a brutal script to shoot: multiple tense and complicated action sequences, so many high stakes and key to the series emotional and character scenes, and some really huge moments for Lydia to act. King was a phenomenal director.

With formidable DP extraordinaire Dana Gonzales at her side, she gave us one of the most kinetic, emotional and visceral episodes to date. The action sequences had a hyper-vivid quality, the locations perfectly backdropped the emotional arcs; the whole thing was as emotional as her performances usually are, and in the same way — subtle but devastating.

All in all, this was one of SouthLAnd‘s strongest ever episodes, a great debut on the show for Whedon as writer and King as director. Their pairing produced TV gold. This show knows exactly how to move fast and stay alive. It’s thrilling.

 

Random Witness Statements:

  • “Amazing to think that for every one of those people there’s a pair of disappointed parents…”
  • Sherman is fan of the arts, apparently
  • The subtle handling of Sherman tipping off vice about his former weed dealer
  • King’s acting opposite the serial killer on death row
  • EVERY SINGLE SCENE WITH DEWEY
  • Cooper loves his cactus garden like Dewey loves kale
  • This really was a brilliantly constructed episode by Whedon
  • “Guy’s a monster, and now he’s going to reap the whirlwind”

 

How to be awesome (look closely, you'll see it)

How to be awesome

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SouthLAnd “Babel”: Fallback mode, just like the old days

With the third episode of this fifth season, SouthLAnd took it to another level.

With first-timer (to the show) Aaron Rahsaan Thomas’s emotionally scathing script imbuing an aggressive new style with a classic old-school feel, and Jimmy Muro’s basically goddamn brilliant direction (and lighting), this was one of the great SouthLAnd episodes.

The script had some of Chitra Sampath’s anarchic humor (Bryant and Hatosy doing a hand-puppet show for first-graders), Cheo Coker’s pop culture style and graceful nods to the old ways (Cooper’s note-perfect conversation with his former TO), Heather Zuhlke’s textural genius and Jonathan Lisco’s precise emotional scalpel. But this is not to say it was not original — it was. Thomas integrated everything that makes the show great and made it into something new: Babel was sharper, faster moving, more streamlined. His beats and scenes had a raucous, deliberately unstable energy. He nailed the inherent absurdity potential of life on the streets, and also the way that ridiculousness can tip over into gut-wrenching horror. Dewey’s boot nearly decapitating herself on a steel wire during a pursuit; the skateboard thugs vs. the old-timers; the hallucinogenic lemonade (really); the ongoing farce of Sammy and Tammi spilling over into real danger; the quiet, implacable horror of the shootings; the sadness of Cooper at the world maybe changing faster than he can handle. All those things flowed, smoothly, seamlessly, woven together by the overall chaos of LAPD dispatch being down. Communication was all over the place; the episode was perfectly titled.

It rocked on the page, and with Muro calling the shots, you know it rolled on the screen.

Shots fired

Shots fired

Jimmy Muro, man. What a legend. Not only is he a legendary DP who has worked with some of the greatest directors of all time on some of the greatest movies of all time  (Michael Mann’s Heat being a prime example), but he knows how to shoot the shit out of a script himself. Babel was his finest directorial work on SouthLAnd yet. It’s like he shoots in 3D — he adds a visual dimension that many directors miss. This was one of the most beautifully composed episodes in the show’s history. It was there when the camera was on Sammy driving, looking past him at Sherman on the passenger side, the depth of field through Sherman’s window — the sheer level of detail in the angles all the way into the distance was beautiful. It was present in the constant wheeling glimpses of the fortress LA skyline in the background of shots, the causal integration of the incredible architecture of the city.

Muro gets that LA skyline

Muro gets that LA skyline

Every scene was expertly staged and shot for maximum chaos and viscerality: the skate thugs scene was simple on the surface, but highly complex underneath. The car racing past and swerving within a few inches of Cooper on the street was an adrenaline-pumping second or two; it was brilliantly done — the scene just kept moving. Or in a simpler moment, when Lydia and Ruben were talking to the mother of the murdered kid (her third murdered child), Muro kept the camera focused on a picture of the three kids, while the principals in the scene were out of focus.

Genius in every shot. And that included the actors.

As always, the guest actors were phenomenal. The teacher coming on to Sherman, the old lady taking on the skate thugs; they, and the others, brought a tremendous realism  to every second they were on screen — they were (and always are ) one of the key components of the greatness of this show.

Annie Monroe likes what she sees

Annie Monroe likes what she sees

The core cast nailed it too. The shifting relationship between Bryant and Sherman is being portrayed with absolutely incredible acting by Hatosy and McKenzie. It’s a complex relationship, and they’re making us believe every up and down of it. Cudlitz was really great too. His emotional conversation with his former TO on the boat was a masterpiece of subtlety and nuance. Don’t retire, Cooper!

McShane and Cudlitz

McShane and Cudlitz

So, yeah, this was a kick-ass episode, up there in the pantheon of great SouthLAnd eps. And the preview for next week looked even more insane. Season Five is going from strength to strength.

Random witness statements:

  • It’s so great to have Tommy Howell as a regular
  • Can we get Jamie McShane promoted to regular too?
  • “I’m driving. I am contact.”
  • JIMMY MURO
  • Sometimes things get lost in translation — great opening voiceover.