SouthLAnd’s day of Reckoning

Nothing will ever be the same.

The beginning of the end

The beginning of the end

As season five drew to its genuinely shocking close, the dread that had been building throughout the episode — throughout the season — exploded. It has been the season of John Cooper, played with certified Emmy magnificence to the end by Michael Cudlitz. In effect, he shouldered the entire season like a modern day Atlas, and it was on his tired, weary face that the existential pain of being alive was etched in ever deeper lines as the episodes rolled by. In Reckoning, his agony became complete.

This episode was, without a doubt, SouthLAnd‘s finest moment.

It was expertly scripted by the extraordinarily intelligent Jonathan Lisco, the former lawyer/NYPD Blue writer who has found his true calling with this show. In person, he’s an erudite, precise conversationalist; his scripts feel that way too. The language is honed with the highest skill; whether it’s violent interchanges or quiet interludes, jokes or grief, if you look at his scripts line by line, they are masterpieces of elegance and seamless construction. Nothing is wasted; nothing is uneven. Everything, as Thom Yorke once sang, in its right place.

Reckoning was the best Lisco script yet (despite its lack of Nicki Minaj references). He gave us the final stage of Cooper’s descent into hell, knocking away each and every crutch and support one by one, until the final, most devastating blow of all: Laurie didn’t want to have children with him anymore. The episode was peppered with references to Cooper eating a gun, losing it, disintegrating: in classical Greek style the tragedy wended its way ever closer. Darkness loomed. We just didn’t know how or when it would come.

Even as Lisco was laying down Cooper’s trajectory, he was giving us beautiful (in the mathematical sense as well as the emotional) resolutions to the other two components of SouthLAnd‘s character triptych: Sherman/Bryant, and Adams.

Lydia’s resolution was a nice grace note amidst the darkness: the ever-rumpled Tom Everett Scott returned as Russell Clarke in the last few episodes, and seeing the two of them find their way to a tentative, possible happy ending has been an unexpected pleasure, and yes, in that final, beautifully shot scene on the beach, heartwarming. This is not an adjective I’ve ever used in five seasons of writing about this show, but, of course, they fully earned it, playing out the scene just right, just so. It was a lovely payoff to a relationship that we’ve been feeling and possibly hoping for since the pilot. Regina King and Scott were perfect, and their natural chemistry just flowed.

A rare moment of peace and beauty

A rare moment of peace and beauty

Heartwarming resolutions were in short supply in the other major arc.

The Sammy vs. Ben showdown has been played out so well throughout the season. Ben crossed the line last season in God’s Work, Risk and Thursday. That gave the writers a great platform from which to just f**K with the Ben and Sammy dynamic in season five, and they did a tremendous job with the story they chose: Ben’s complete amorality allowing him to believe that having Chris break into Sammy’s house and tag it with gang signs while stealing the tape was a genuinely okay thing to do.

Can of whup-ass that's about to be opened: not pictured.

Can of whup-ass that’s about to be opened: not pictured.

Spoiler: it wasn’t.

When it came, the storm broke in spectacular fashion. Sammy finally worked it out, and confronted Ben in a tense, fraught, emotional and heartbreaking scene outside the hospital, which ended with a hyper-intense all-out brawl between the two of them. “We were partners,” Ben yells. “That’s right,” spits Sammy. “Were.” And he walks away.

The terse economy of Lisco’s script gave Ben McKenzie and Shawn Hatosy their finest, most accomplished performances of the show to date, in all five seasons.

It's about to be so over

Get ready

The betrayal of trust between these two men who should be brothers, having each other’s back, was devastating. McKenzie was so controlled, giving us Ben’s collapsing emotional world within an intense, desperately holding on performance. Hatosy brought the De Niro/Penn intensity, letting it twist his features as it steadily boiled up from within until he was consumed with heartbreak and rage. Their acting was like f**king opera, man. I bow down to the pair of them: they are two of the finest actors working today. Absolutely extraordinary. That clanging sound you hear is me dropping names: when I hung out with them last year in LA, they were completely relaxed, genial, down to earth, but completely passionate about this show. They transformed their souls for these performances; turned themselves inside out in the way that only truly great actors who trust the material and their director can do.

Their director: Chris f**king Chulack, man. Wow.

He grew up in the shadow of Dodger’s stadium; he knows Los Angeles like few others. Listening to him talk about shooting on the streets of LA is fascinating. It’s no coincidence that SouthLAnd has been the only show on television to, amongst all its other achievements, give us the true fabric of this great city.

Chulack took the show airborne

Chulack took the show airborne

No one shoots LA like Chulack with DP Jimmy Muro at his side. No one. He’s one of my favorite directors, and I am including movie directors on that list. He shoots unflinchingly, architecturally, fluidly, sharply; in the edit, he cuts the episode deep, down to the bone.

Chulack has directed some of the best episodes of TV drama; so when I say this was a career best for him, please see it in that context. It really was a phenomenally directed episode. It layered in the three arcs (tragedy, showdown and possibility), dovetailing them tightly in a way that rushed us forward before we were ready. Because we were never really ready; none of us wanted this thing to end. But it powered its way through the shortest seeming hour in history, even with those extra two minutes.

And it had to end.

None of us were ready for how.

Spoilers.

Cooper’s hellish horror-scape of a season reached a terrible peak in Chaos, as he watched Lucero get executed while they were cuffed together. All Cooper had left was the hope of a child. And Lisco (and the writers room) took that away in Reckoning. They took it all away. They stripped down Cooper’s emotional machinery until he was a wreck of car with no wheels, axles propped up by bricks. He had nothing left. The signs all seemed to point to suicide, and the writers really played this one out in the most close to the line way they could. It seems inconceivable that Cooper didn’t know what he was doing when he refused to throw the gun away in that final scene, instead swaying up to his feet, gun waving. How could he not know they would shoot him? We’ve seen it mentioned before, suicide by cop: wave a gun and wait for them to fire. But… but… he was in the killing rage, red mist clouding everything: sound and visuals were hazy, slowed down, disorientating. Maybe he was on his way to putting his hands up in the air.

A decision is about to be made...

A decision is about to be made…

We may never know. That’s the beauty of SouthLAnd.

Instead, (depending on how this cliffhanger plays out) we might just be left with the memory of Cooper, an extraordinary cop, played in the most grounded, compassionate way by Cudlitz. Has anyone ever done more to earn an Emmy? I don’t think so. Cudlitz has proven himself to be the soul of the show this season, the guardian of all that it stands for. To see his portrayal of Cooper’s helpless descent into loneliness, depression, hopelessness, and then, finally, the heart-rending breakdown of his command presence; it’s been revelatory acting. I’m going to miss Cooper.

There may be no more “hey numbnuts.”

Shit.

Cudlitz did groundbreaking work this season: Emmy better reward him.

This is a possible eulogy for Cooper (those were pretty serious gunshot wounds, but to quote Rob Thomas, there’s dead, and then there’s TV dead). He was one of TV’s most iconic, epic characters. One of TV’s most essential characters. But I don’t want this to be a eulogy for the show; I fully believe it will come back for a sixth season, if not on TNT, maybe on another network like FX or AMC.

I don’t want this show to go.

It means a huge amount to me. I’m not exaggerating — not even a bit — when I say it’s changed my life. It was the spark and the ignition for my TV scriptwriting. It showed me how to write TV scripts; how to tell stories in the most real and most stripped back way; how to create characters that live and breathe and are real. It’s taught me so much, and everything I’ve learned from writing scripts has deeply influenced the way I write my novels. Now everything I write is, I hope, SouthLAnd-style; it’s the standard I aim for, even if I don’t always get there, it gets me further than I would have otherwise. It’s led me to Los Angeles; to meetings with film companies; to an extraordinary hour and a half sitting at a bar having a brilliant conversation with Cheo Coker and Cudlitz. It’s given me amazing experiences. It’s brought me friends (Deb, Bill, Lisa and others).

From the opening shot of the pilot I was hooked; by the time they played the National’s Fake Empire in the final scenes, I was in love with the show. It’s only gotten more intense.

I’ve never been so emotionally attached to a show; so, no, I don’t want it to end. None of us do.

All we can do is let TNT know, keep sending the message.

And keep praying that for SouthLAnd, this isn’t end of watch.

SL R Dewey

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SouthLAnd “Bleed Out”: Cooper will stare you DOWN

Let’s just call this one Cooper’s episode, shall we?

From the photo flash voiceover (“John Cooper’s learned on the streets of Los Angeles, a single step can separate life from death”), through the heartbreaking and dumbass-related situations he had to deal with throughout the day, to the existentially painful confrontation with his former T.O. at the end, this was all about Cooper.

Cooper has a great bus-side manner

Cooper has a great bus-side manner

Michael Cudlitz was f**king amazing in this episode. He did the whole dryly amused thing in dealing with the S&M mishap (classic line from the perp: “my cuffs or yours”); he drew on some deep, quiet heartbreak in his conversations with the victim who got trapped under a city bus, and his face as he watched her getting pulled out was devastating; and he went to a dark, painful place deep within his soul in the scenes dealing with Gerald McRaney’s starkly downward spiral. I don’t think we’ve ever seen Cooper so depressed as he was when Dewey tried to cheer him up in the locker room towards the end. Cudlitz made us feel the epic gravitas of Cooper’s deep crisis; he gave it weight, and somehow made it calm on the surface while showing us the dangerous currents swirling deep down below.

Although nothing, I mean nothing, can compare to the sheer genius of what must be the most devastatingly epic “you’re a numbnuts” staredown that Cooper gave the cop who handcuffed a guy and put him in the back of the patrol car without realizing he had a gun.

Note to self: Cooper does not like being shot at.

This is clearly turning into the season of Cooper’s soul. And in fact, the season as a whole is going deeper into these characters and what makes them tick, what drives them, what can destroy them, or save them. It’s a more subtle, more novelistic season than the previous four. It’s peeling back the layers on our core cast like never before. Flaying them, actually; it’s as unmerciful as it sounds.

One by one, the characters are being relentlessly driven far beyond their limits, into unknown territory for them. It’s dismantling everything they know about themselves, leaving them uncomfortably adrift in unfamiliar waters.

Shawn Hatosy is back in full angsty Sean Penn prowl mode as Tammy’s assault charges keep on rolling forward. She’s driving Sammy crazy and utterly messing with his head, just like she always has; only now, it’s sabotaging his ability to work, and blurring his moral lines, to say the least. Hatosy has been great this season, bringing bite and punch to Sammy’s scenes, giving us a compelling portrait of a man in crisis.

Sherman is continuing on his “a-hole trajectory”, somehow managing to get worse in every episode. His absolute amorality is amusing, though; starting the episode in the shower with one woman, and ending it in a different shower with a different woman, definitely shows his impressive commitment to being a dick. And the way he’s backing up Sammy one minute, reaming him out the next for depriving them of glory, then being all condescending and forgiving him… Sherman is in many ways struggling with who he is and what kind of cop and person he wants to be (he’s embracing the dark side, but one wants to believe it’s costing him). Ben McKenzie is as excellent as ever, and has found ways to shade in new, sharper details in his fearless and uncompromising portrayal of Sherman. McKenzie is a fantastic actor, and this role has been perfect for him. He makes Sherman’s unpleasantness utterly fascinating and compelling.

Regina King brought the despair nicely in this episode, dealing with a case that essentially played out her worst nightmare as a new mom. King was hypnotically distraught and flayed bare, while still keeping Lydia’s steely exterior mostly in place. Her performance was soulful and haunting.

Adams confronting her fears

Adams confronting her fears

Chad Feehan’s script (another debut this season) did a nice job of playing out these scenes of subtle heartbreak (while peppering the episode with some killer one liners), and Chris Chulack directed with a raw yet minimalist power. He unleashed kineticism when necessary (in the car chase, and Sherman’s fight scene), and stayed below the radar the rest of the time, presenting the scenes in a disturbing but SouthLAnd-style unflinching way.

Overall, the episode didn’t fully pop the way this show can (we’ve seen a husband/nanny story told more vividly and soulfully on the show last season, for example, and I know that wasn’t the point of this particular storyline, but it played a big role). However, this was supposed to be a deeper, more soul-searching episode, and in that respect, it delivered and then some.

Random Witness Statements:

  • “Tend to your cactus, man. Rent a musical, do what you do…”
  • “While you were f**king cheerleaders in the bleachers, I was on the streets.”
  • Don’t get the bus in L.A.
  • “Let’s go, P2.”
  • Tommy Howell nailed it as Dewey, again; it was frankly disturbing to see him so subdued; his scenes with Regina were flawless.
  • Sammy and the camcorder: a great SouthLAnd final scene.

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

SouthLAnd Season 5: Hats And Bats

We hold cops to a higher standard because we give them a gun and a badge.

Officer Ben Sherman, facing stark realities

Officer Ben Sherman, facing stark realities

Only problem with that is, we recruit them from the human race.

With that opening voiceover and freezeframe, SouthLAnd started its fifth season by dropping us into hell without a parachute. Each season gets tighter, hits harder, jabs more lethally and precisely, knocks you down with even more viscerality. Hats And Bats continued this tradition with blade-sharpened verve and ferociousness, while, as always, somehow finding time to inject genuinely heartbreaking emotion. It brings you to your knees, then breaks your heart.

This episode was written by the exemplary Jonathan Lisco, directed by the legendary Chris Chulack, and lit by lighting genius and maestro Jimmy Muro. Lisco’s scripts always carry his signature: an extraordinary sense of intelligence and precision, whether he’s serving up something shocking, hardcore emotional, funny, or just general truths about humanity. It sounds casual when it’s written out in a list like that: but there’s nothing casual about it. It takes hard work and skill to pull off. Lisco delivers all those things in elegant scripts that just flow. There’s always a powerful core of great character work that keeps the script rolling; all those other elements are subtly intergated on the fly. Which just happens to be the definition of great writing.

For example, the scene in the swimming pool/bath house: utterly horrific, over so quickly we never know what was going on – but it’s a complex, almost wordless character moment for Sherman and Bryant. Then, later in the episode, their scene dealing with the old lady whose sister was murdered (which included a nice shout out to writer/supervising producer Cheo Coker, who moved from SouthLAnd to NCIS: LA), was another example of the scene getting in, getting out, but slamming you with serious emotions on the way. And Lisco was also responsible for one of the funniest lines of the show in all five seasons:

Jerry: “We have a permit.”

Cooper: “To be a dipshit?”

Of course, Chulack  and Muro killed it. Of course they did. They shot and lit it with brutal, pared-down style, keeping the camera close and low to the ground. It was the kind of lighting and directing that almost stripped itself away, making you feel as though you were immersed in nothing other than the rawest of truths in every beat, every scene.

Which brings us to the acting.

Damn.

This may be the finest ensemble in TV right now.

Ben McKenzie and Shawn Hatosy nailed the fractious, buddy/brotherly relationship between Sherman and Bryant. McKenzie portrayed Sherman’s unease at his newest level of celebrity, while Hatosy was utterly compelling as a father under huge pressure, dealing with a crazy ex-wife, barely controlling his rage from boiling over. Lisco’s script had Sherman and Bryant butting heads, cracking jokes, having each other’s backs, and McKenzie and Hatosy handled every single beat with extreme presence, energy and truth. Regina King showed us a mother barely holding it together as she dealt with the immense stress of being a single mom, as well as the immense stress of being a detective; King was incredible, as she always is.

And then there was Cudlitz.

He gave us an astonishing spectrum of emotions in this episode. Lisco gave him great material to work with — having to be even more hard-ass than usual with his newest boot, an ex-military powerhouse with attitude to spare — as well as peeling back the layers to show the lonely soul beneath the surface who just craves companionship, and, maybe, even though he’d never admit it, love. Brilliant work from Cudlitz from start to finish.

Dewey. Yep.

Tommy Howell is a legend, and it’s great to see him promoted from recurring to regular.

On every level, this really is a show that grabs you and doesn’t let you go. It makes you feel like it just threw you off a balcony. There’s a vertiginous sense of falling that pulses through this show — that dread is part of its power, because anything can happen at any time.

All in all, this was a truly fantastic start to what promises to be an amazing fifth season for SouthLAnd. It’s a show that just keeps on getting better, season after season. That’s a rarity in TV drama. This show really is one of a kind; can’t say thank you to TNT enough for believing in it too.

Random witness statements:

  • Few things are more pleasing at this point than hearing”hey numbnuts!”
  • Jeez, Sherman — Sammy just really wants to clean up some blood this episode, okay?
  • Coker
  • “Welcome to the info age. Instant riots — just add tweets.”
  • So much screaming in this episode
  • Bryant on Sherman’s new haircut: “They remaking Taxi Driver?”

SouthLAnd: “God’s Work” – Emotional Survival For Law Enforcement

If I made this review as brutally to the point as this episode was, I’d simply say this:

Cheo Coker wrote a beautiful, kick-ass script and Guy Norman Bee directed the f**k out of it, while Ben McKenzie turned in a devastatingly primal & raw performance.

But there’s so much more to say.

I’ll start with the obvious: this was one of SouthLAnd‘s strongest episodes. It was stripped back to the bleached bones of the L.A. landscape, and the most primal elements of the characters’ souls. It was beautiful in its simplicity, its refusal to waste time or words. As Cooper said in his final scene, “that simple?” To which his sponsor Lamar replied: “Yeah. All the hard things are.”

That stark sense of truth began with Coker’s script, which was one of his best. If his other script this season, Underwater, was a crazy block party, full of overflowing life and violence and jokes and energy, God’s Work was the head-pounding contemplation the next day.

It pumped out killer lines like bullets from an endlessly reloading shotgun, one after another after another (most of which came to Shawn Hatosy, who swung for the fences and knocked every single one easily out of the park with absolute style). It had Coker’s unique and fiery old-school soulfulness. And it thumped like a booming hip hop beat when it had to.

But it submerged all that in a deep, quiet calm, the serenity to accept the things we cannot change… a zen purity of purpose. We glided across the waters of this one, all the way to the perfect storm at the end, when the Kraken woke. This was like some classic Greek shit. Everyone contained the seeds of their own destruction and salvation, and the only question was what choice each character would make, which path they would take.

This was all great drama is supposed to be, and what so little drama actually is. It’s what SouthLAnd does better than any other show: forcing characters to confront their deepest flaws or fears, sending mack trucks juggernauting into their moral schemes and belief systems. It’s a show that will utterly demolish everything its characters believe in, because it’s about how we react when everything is on the line. Stakes are sky high. Officer Ben Sherman was on the receiving end of this treatment last season when the truth about his mother’s assault was revealed. And Sherman had to face the darkness again in God’s Work, and somehow keep his soul.

This was the finest work of Ben McKenzie’s career to date, which is saying something, because he’s a damn great actor. SouthLAnd is about raising the bar with every episode, every act, every beat. McKenzie was there all the way, showing us a man whose soul is being ravaged by his own inner darkness, the rage that he’s always keeping buried. It was a haunting and raw performance, as Sherman couldn’t stop, maybe didn’t even try to stop, himself from descending into hell.

Coker’s script took him there, along with the astonishing direction of Guy Norman Bee, a former steadicam operator on ER who has since gone on to direct Veronica Mars, The Secret Circle, The Nine Lives Of Chloe King, and, most regularly, Supernatural.

He brought an incredibly detailed and quietly unobtrusive eye to this episode. It was stark and architectural in its complex yet dynamic visual style. This was Michael Mann-level directing. Bee’s eye for the complexity of lines in the composition of the shot made every frame fascinating and kinetic, but in the most subliminal of ways, subsumed into the flow of the story (just like in the script). The descending concentric circles of the parking lot when Lydia looked down at “the splat.” The angles of the stairwell playing against the lines of Sherman and Bryant holding their guns going up the stairs in the squatter house. The frames and windows of the offices where Tang had her interview. It was all beautifully done, creating a stark, rotating landscape for the tense drama to play out against.

Bee was backed up by lighting maestro Dana Gonzales, who brought a haunting glow to the rough, over-saturated streets of L.A. The opening scene, as Cooper and Lamar talk, was simply gorgeous, as early morning light hung in a hazy gauze over the skyscrapers, and a thousand little lens flares rippled up from the lake. From there it got darker and starker, all the way to the primally lit scene at the end, when Bryant lays it all down for Sherman. It was eerie, spine tingling: the two men sat in deep shadow and the coldest, barest lines of light just lit their edges. Shawn Hatosy gave a stunning, Brando-esque reading of those great, classic lines: “you’re my partner…. I’ll back you up, punch for punch…”

It was f**king poetry on every level, like everything in this episode, from the largest moment to the smallest. As Cooper contemplated his own intense set of options in his briefer scenes, Michael Cudlitz brought the gravitas like a true master, finding the highest level of impact through the smallest of gestures and motions, making us feel the soul-shaking implications of his future choices. In his short scene, Tommy Howell brought a sinewy soulfulness to “Uncle Dewey”‘s meaningful and moving scene with Tang. And let’s take a moment to praise Jamie McShane, who always brings grit and steel to the role of watch commander Sgt. Hill, even in the space of a line or two. His ability to bring such presence to brief moments in some ways sums up the show: it’s all in the power of the details.

No review would be complete without a callout to the day players, including The Wire‘s Lawrence Gilliard Jr playing Lamar with a poetic, fresh rhythm; Oz Zehavi doing fine work in his first U.S. TV role as Eric Hanson; and Kelly Wolf as Cheryl Hanson, wringing huge emotions from the briefest of moments. They — and all the others — were great, bringing soul and heartbreak to the surface in perfectly fragmented, naturalistic ways.

SouthLAnd‘s toughest challenge is often to explode the traditional narrative, fragment it until the shards are still touching and connected, but just barely. It went above and beyond in this regard with God’s Work. Every scene flowed deep into all the others, but never in a contrived way. It was a masterclass in script DNA.

It’s getting harder to review this show, to be honest, because it keeps getting better, and it rarely misses a step. Remember how it seemed like it exploded out of the gate with the pilot episode, Unknown Trouble? Well, it did, and it was fantastic… but it’s undeniable, and kind of mind-blowing: it’s operating on a much higher level now.

It keeps finding extra gears, and it’s pretty clear at this point: it’s just going to keep finding more. Season Five seems all but assured when the show is rolling so hard. As Cudlitz likes to say, with this show, you have to expect the unexpected. But there’s one thing we can always expect, and we always get: greatness.

“Underwater”: SouthLAnd ain’t nuthin’ to f**k with

Cops routinely find themselves underwater… the undertow can be tricky.

“Underwater” was a powerhouse episode, full of beautiful interplay and texture, subtle dynamics, kick-ass set-pieces, and the constant, neverending threat of unknown trouble. Cheo Coker’s script floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee, with Coker riffing brilliantly on our beloved characters, firing off killer line after killer line like rounds from a Glock, nailing pop culture references, and diving into the complex motivations of why cops become cops, why cops stay cops, and how cops become the cops they’re meant to be, for better or for worse.

It was a classic script, full of scenes, lines and beats that punched their way off the screen. Whether it was Bryant calling Sherman “Captain save-a-ho”, or the running gag about the Mickey D’s application form, or Dewey’s glorious insanity, this was a script that ducked and dived, threw jabs, one-twos and combinations, and didn’t stop running until the FADE OUT. There were too many references and quotable moments to list here – I’d just be writing out the entire script if I mentioned everything that was awesome – but Coker blended pop culture (Rambo, The Walking Dead) with right-on-target real situations (Randy Simmons inspiring kids to be cops). If you had to pick the greatest single moment – and you could argue like 50 of them – for me it was Jessica Tang’s new nickname. As Cooper said it, “they call you Wu-Tang now… cuz you ain’t nothin to f**k with.”

We also heard the show’s statement of intent early on the in the episode: “we’re here to protect and serve… and kick ass.”

But this wasn’t just a funny episode, or a clever one; it went much further, much deeper. What this show does better than any other is push its characters way over the edge, challenging who they think they are, obliterating their belief systems, and testing their capabilities to the limit. This is what great drama consists of, and it’s a credit to John Wells and the entire SouthLAnd team that this takes place so naturalistically, so seamlessly. The actors rose to the challenge of Coker’s great character work, bringing to life the texture and dynamics on the page. Shawn Hatosy somehow gets more intense with every episode, channeling Brando, Penn, De Niro, but wearing it lightly, easily. Ben McKenzie is handling Sherman’s trajectory into a darker place with great skill and grace, playing his complexities perfectly and compellingly. Michael Cudlitz is the anchor, the rock; whether he’s delivering a beatdown or a wry grin, he brings the gravitas and the humor. Tommy Howell just kills it, every time, taking the messed-up twisted sickness that the writers throw at him and making it utterly engaging even as your jaw drops. Lucy Liu is a steely force to be reckoned with, and her chemistry with Cudlitz is perfect; she’s a truly integral part of the cast thanks to her subtle, minimalist approach. And you have to love Dorian Missick and Regina King. She’s as soulful and forceful as ever, telling the truth with her performance like an absolute virtuoso, while he plays out the questioning, troubled role of Ruben with great presence, hitting hard with a quiet power; they’re a great team.

And while Coker handled the words, and the actors brought them to life, everything was beautifully lit and framed by DP Jimmy Muro and director Nelson McCormick. SouthLAnd has always been a show about textures, specifically the textures of character and light. This was a stunning episode from that perspective, using Los Angeles to incredible effect, whether in street-level chases, or the massive Downtown skyline looming behind the patrol cops as they took a break. The scene where our four patrol cops kept watch on suspects on a street corner was masterfully shot, moving from the show’s signature saturated light to stark, silhouetted cars and officers, and back again.

This is a show that is made great by the dedication and commitment of every single person involved in its creation; it couldn’t be the greatest cop show of all time if that wasn’t the case. That care, that love, is present and evident in every moment on the screen.

Greatness is encoded into this show’s DNA. Whether it’s two detectives questioning the morality of their methods, four patrol officers remembering why they joined the force, or the shocking, visceral moments like the man on fire, this show is unbeatable, unstoppable, and unmissable.

SouthLAnd: “Wednesday”

SouthLAnd‘s fourth season explodes onto the screen like a roaring freight train with no brakes coming right at you.

Freeze frame.

This opening episode is a brutal, hard-charging statement of intent. The makers of this show know the only way to survive is to evolve uncompromisingly. They act accordingly.

Unfreeze.

From a fan’s perspective — hell, from every perspective — Wednesday was a fantastic episode, not just of the show, but of TV drama. The show moved faster, hit harder, got up in your face and never backed down, like Sherman facing down the yard full of gangbangers. SouthLAnd is a show that does not flinch, ever, and this opening episode was a searingly perfect example of that refusal to blink.

It all started with Jonathan Lisco’s script, which was a belter, a masterclass in taut & spare drama with its blistering dialogue, sky-rocketing tension, a pulsing sense of ever-present danger, brutally honed action scenes, gut-punching emotion, and genuinely, show-stoppingly horrifying sequences.

This is how you open a season.

Lisco’s script didn’t waste a second in throwing us into Lydia’s still-troubled existence, the much anticipated ball-busting banter between Sherman and Bryant, the introduction of Lucy Liu’s Jessica Tang, and, perhaps most highly anticipated of all, the return of John Cooper.

Everyone in this show brings their all to every scene; this episode was jammed with outstanding performances. Ben McKenzie and Shawn Hatosy were pitch-perfect in their back and forth; Regina King is one of the greatest actresses in TV drama; C. Thomas Howell killed it; Lucy Liu was truly great, while Lou Diamond Phillips laid down intensity and fire. And Michael Cudlitz brought true authority to the return of the beloved Cooper.

These razor-sharp performances were handled with breathtaking kinetic style by Christopher Chulack, backed by the legendary Jimmy Muro as DP. This was without a doubt the most visceral episode in the show’s history.

With humor, emotion, white-knuckle action, pyschological brutality, and outright horror, Chulack and Muro elevated the show’s brutal aesthetic to a whole new level. It was breathless, gasp-inducing television that flipped your expectations hard and didn’t give you a second to recover. Even when it made you laugh (and this is, sincerely, one of the funniest dramas out there), it was a jagged laughter, rough with pain.

Between them, Chulack and Muro forged a whole new style of filmmaking. It was as though they’d discovered a new dimension of light and motion. Chulack had the camera racing headlong throughout Los Angeles, while Muro captured everything from bleached-out sunglare to waves sadly lapping on the beach in dusk light.

It was a thrilling, gut-wrenching, brilliant hour of television. And as always, it reinforced, through the opening freeze-frame, what is, essentially, the show’s core belief: “our worst nightmare is just their Wednesday.”

If the opening episode was this good, it’s mind-blowing to imagine just how astonishing the rest of the season will be. Because this is a show that tightrope-runs on live-wires.

Even if you’ve never watched SouthLAnd before, start now.