Luke Cage: Long Live the Chief

Back in the day (well, 2011), I wrote about an emerging TV writer called Cheo Hodari Coker, who was working on the greatest cop show of all time (SouthLAnd, fool), in a blog with the title Coker Plays The Blues. Coker went on to write some of SouthLAnd‘s greatest episodes, as well as work on Almost Human, NCIS: LA and Ray Donovan.

But now he’s stepped up to create and run a show that’s been dominating social media for most of the summer, without even being released. So when Netflix dropped the most buzzed about show in its history at the end of September, expectations were sky high.

luke-cage-hoodie

2016 is an especially charged year for a show about a bulletproof black man, a fact not lost on Coker. So he did the only right thing, the thing he’d been intending to do all along: he leaned into that, hard. Luke Cage dives deep into the African American experience: it’s the show’s beating heart, the blood in its veins, its soul, and its purpose. And in that respect, the show couldn’t be any better.

The show’s foregrounding of what it means to be black in America is so long overdue in TV (or on any size screen) it’s ridiculous: how has it taken this long? (Yes, I know why: institutional bias, AKA, racism). Luke Cage is what TV (and America, and the world) needs now more than ever. Coker cast people of color in every level of role (which, shamefully for society and pop culture, was a revolutionary act in itself) and hit hard with his signature dropping of references in the scripts, which means the show is stacked deep with truly excellent actors and performances, namechecks everything from Chester Hines to A$AP Rocky… and then there’s that soundtrack… damn, that soundtrack is sweet. Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad bring the funk with a gritty, slinky, soulful Wu-Tang meets Shaft vibe that gives the show a whole extra dimension of cool.

It has been called the Wu-Tangification of Marvel (by Coker), but on watching the show, you realize that that’s not strictly true… it’s more classic and less agitated than that. It’s more like the 70s Isaac Hayes-ification of Marvel, which is still intensely, deeply cool, but not quite as savage and frenetic as the Staten Island collective. The reason for that is the pace of the show. When Jessica Jones (which gave us our first look at Cage) dropped, some people complained about its novelistic pacing, and how not every episode stood alone in terms of stuff happening specific to each episode. Personally, I dug the hell out of it, but here’s the thing: Luke Cage is paced much more slowly than JJ.

It’s beautifully made, but it’s also an extremely deliberate, measured, slow burn, which is why it’s more Motown than RZA. It’s personal preference as to what you make of that. For this reviewer, it did feel early on as though all the bandwidth was being taken up with some very long conversations. The conversations were, of course, important texturally, and in themselves, they’re joyously great (that opening scene was beautifully played out); but you can’t help wondering if there could have been a way to combine the texture with the action, instead of separating them out. The show makes texture, subtext, theme and action all one thing later on to brilliant effect (e.g. the dashcam video, Misty explaining why an innocent black man would be on the run from cops who think he’s guilty and are armed with special bullets), which makes you long for some of that at the start.

Those early conversations are about books, meditations on the nature of power and society, and what it means to be a man. Those are all powerful things to fill a show with, but this is a genre show that’s part of the Marvel universe. For the first half of the season, it didn’t necessarily feel that way: it lacked fire and, literally, punch.

lc-mike-colter

OK, there’s some punching…

Luke Cage is, especially early on, a somewhat passive and reactive character. The premise for the show is that he’s hiding out in Harlem, trying to be invisible (I’m not sure we needed the lingering shot of Cage staring at the cover of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, but…). That’s a low key place to start, but necessary for Cage’s arc from hideaway to hero. Thirteen hours is a long time for that type of arc to play out, though. That means the show takes some serious time working through those beats. The pattern for the first few episodes is a lot of talking, and maybe a minute or less of action at the end. You need to get on board with the slowed down rhythm. The lack of fire and tension is compounded too by some head-on framing (perfectly composed and very still wide master shots are a trademark of Sherlock director Paul McGuigan, who directed the first two episodes and set the tone), scenes that are very, very cool but run long (e.g. Cottonmouth walking very slowly towards his picture window to get the perfect framing of the Biggie picture’s crown on his head), and editing that lingers slightly too long on some moments, all of which contribute to letting the air out of a lot of scenes.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s a certain glee to moments in the first three eps. Luke beating down Cottonmouth’s thugs at the end of the first, Luke’s iconic attack on the Crispus Attucks building to the sounds of Bring Da Ruckus in three (which, although it lacks some visual clarity, is still damn cool), to the closing seconds of that episode, when Cottonmouth shoots a f**cking rocket at Luke—it’s undeniably a kickass moment—which kicks us into ep 4, which is full of flashbacks. That ep takes its time, but lets us know exactly what happened to Luke to make him bulletproof, which justifies the speed of the revelation.

The transitional episode is probably the fifth, “Just To Get A Rep.” This features some of the most clumsy and purely functional dialogue to date in the show, and it has scenes thrown together that don’t really flow, creating a jarring effect. But it’s the ep’s epic non-dialogue scenes that tilt the show towards its remaining (and generally much more successful) episodes. Firstly, Jidenna singing Long Live The Chief in the club is f**king HUGE. It hits HARD. Goddamn, I loved that. Suddenly, the club and its music IGNITE in terms of storytelling. Chills, baby. Secondly, and, sorry, even more awesomely, is the reappearance of Claire Temple, played by the legendary, extraordinary, miraculous Rosario Dawson. While everyone on the show is phenomenal (more on that later, but gotta shoutout Simone Missick right here), it’s Dawson that brings the fire to Luke Cage. She’s walking through Harlem, some punk steals her bag… so she runs him down and beats the shit out of him. Perfect. Welcome back, Claire.

photo

And just to point out, those two were actually ONE SEQUENCE. Hats off. Jidenna in the club interweaves with Claire beating down her attacker. It’s how the ep starts and it’s JUST. SO. GOOD. You’re on your feet yelling at the TV because this is exactly what TV should be.

From here on, the fire set in episode five begins to burn more steadily. There are some bumps along the way—the pacing is still uneven, the dialogue can be stilted in places, and the reveal of Diamondback lacked clarity, which detracted from the impact of his appearance (the very low-key, very low-impact handling of shooting Luke with the second Judas bullet didn’t help)—and there’s another significant dip in episode 10, “Take It Personal”, which has much less effective dialogue than ep 5, and in terms of outline and execution, is often confusing and bemusing (so much is made earlier of how catastrophic it would be for Luke to get shot with a second Judas bullet, but ep 10 forgets that second bullet is even there — Claire only takes out one set of fragments. That’s severely jarring, and takes you out of the story.).

But, on the heels of that, we get “Now You’re Mine,” the eleventh and absolutely the best episode by far. Shout out to the writer, Christian Taylor, and the director, George Tillman Jr. It’s amazing. It’s like the show needed to follow Diamondback’s advice in the early moments of the ep: “Later for that pre-written shit… sometimes you gotta freestyle.” Hell to the yes. The dialogue sings sweetly, characters spit wisdom and fire, the storytelling is tense, fraught, suspenseful, the directing is ferocious, and the whole thing is just fantastically and gleefully dark and intense. It also features one of Claire and Misty’s finest moments as they beat down Shades and help each other try to escape the club. Magnificent, towering performances from Dawson and Missick make this some of the best TV of 2016. This is what the show needed to be. Not in the sense that it had to come out of the gate at an 11, but there needed to be signs that this was coming; that this could happen in this world.

lc-misty-and-claire

Episode 12, “Soliloquy Of Chaos” (we have to give Coker kudos for naming every episode after a Gang Starr track, because it works perfectly), continues to bring the fire. Which EXPLODES in the finest final moments of any ep in the show: the always brilliant Ron Cephas Jones finally—FINALLY—gets a bunch of lines worth a damn and absolutely kills with them (“What the hell what type of Jean-Paul Gaultier shit is this? What are you, a pimp stormtrooper?” GREATEST LINES ON TV IN 2016), and the show plunges head-on into full genre insanity, when Misty speaks for all of us and says, “kick his ass, Luke.” Diamondback, tricked out in his pimp stormtrooper high-tech-as-shit outfit, and Luke finally rush each other… and we cut to black. Genius. Everything about this episode works so perfectly it hurts.

lc-diamondback

The final episode drops us right into the fight we’ve been waiting for, and it’s refreshing, and appropriate, that it’s more of a drag-out, knock-down Rocky style brawl in the street. It does kind of just, end, though — and the hints of sci-fi that have been given during it (lingering shots of the power unit on Diamondback’s… back… powering up and down) are not really capitalized upon. And, the fight is at the opening of the episode, which doesn’t leave the rest of the hour with too many places to go. The sudden end to the fight, and the story’s subsequent adrenaline crash, take us back to a slower pace, which foregrounds the key concern of the show: Luke’s lack of agency. Although there are a few key moments when he takes control, for the majority of the thirteen episodes, things happen to him, and he reacts. Which could have worked, except the finale to the show is Luke, in one sense, giving up, reacting one last time and allowing circumstances to dictate his path in life. You can, clearly, read his final decision as noble, and can see some justification for it in his general world-weariness. But it’s an oddly low-key, anticlimactic end. That said, the very final shot, applause over the New York skyline, is pretty goddamned amazing and thrilling.

But Luke isn’t in that shot, and that reminds us that in this show, some of the things that are the most awesome don’t involve Luke at all.

lc-shades

Including, and especially, the other characters. Theo Rossi threatens to steal the show as Shades. Simone Missick gives Misty such a wonderful, wounded intensity. Erik LaRay Harvey tears up Diamondback’s dialogue and spits it in finely deranged fashion. Alfre Woodard truly delivers Mariah’s tipping between powerful and powerless. Mahershala Ali is positively and ferociously Shakespearean as Cottonmouth. Ron Cephas Jones needed more lines because he could say anything and make it sound kick-ass. Rosario Dawson… shit, why doesn’t she have her own Netflix Marvel show at this point? Expose Claire to some experimental rays or serums or some shit and give her powers and let her tear it up! (One of the show’s coolest moments is Claire’s final shot, where she tears off the number for the self defense classes… she’s so gonna own Iron Fist).

But we can’t forget the main man, the power man. Mike Colter. He really brings the brooding, haunted, conflicted Cage to vivid life. Despite the fact the Luke has a habit of being pushed to the back of the action, Colter mesmerizes in every shot, and makes it his own. One of the best cast Marvel heroes of all, no doubt.

So this is where we end up: there is so much to love with Luke Cage. It’s an important show, an essential show, frequently beautiful to look at and experience, and it does many, many things really f**king well. But in the interest of brutal truth: it is uneven (you can clearly feel the different writers on the show), there are pacing and dialogue issues, and its hero often seems detached from the action (in some cases literally off-screen for major stretches of time). Coker is absolutely one of the finest TV writers we have, and has curated a supremely bad-ass and massively, poignantly relevant piece of iconic pop culture with Luke Cage. For what it’s worth, I hope he uses those final few episodes as the template for season 2. This show is too good, and too important, for anything less.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Almost Human: under the Skin

It can be tough for a new show to maintain momentum in its second outing. Fortunately for Almost Human, episode two (“Skin”) featured a Cheo Coker script about sexbots. This was basically the exact opposite of a Kobayashi Maru scenario.

Coker has perfected the art of yielding deep character revelations from the smallest of moments (on SouthLAnd), and the skill of wielding heavy exposition on the fly (on NCIS:LA). These abilities are essential in the future world of Almost Human, which has a network procedural chassis powered by a cable-style character-based engine. The words were the supple human skin on this artificial life form: the hour was full of emotional, wry, hard-hitting and rhythmic dialogue. With a steady stream of killer details (cats, balls), Kennex and Dorian bantered like pros. Karl Urban and Michael Ealy played their scenes to perfection, continuing an endearing chemistry that makes us want to spend the entire hour listening to them ragging on each other.

Almost Human Skin

Both actors can convey emotional nuance with the smallest of actions, which fits the style of this show perfectly; it’s a gritty, flinty, fast-moving world, composed of shards of light and emotion amongst the steel and glass. Cityscapes glitter and shine brightly with future-light, androids behave as though they have souls, and no one is quite what they seem. The hard-bitten noir quality runs through every aspect of Almost Human, as does the connection with Blade Runner, which is not just there in the concept and visuals, but also in the dialogue, with a character at one point talking about a blush response. Of course, the key debate of that movie was whether Deckard was a replicant. It’s a rich seam to mine, and J.H. Wyman’s show is doing it thoughtfully.

At the same time, it’s distinguishing itself from its sci-fi forefathers and brethren, establishing its own unique identity through a new language of crime: flash masks, DNA bombs, tag scramblers. Wyman is delivering on his promise to only feature crimes that are entirely dependent on futuristic technology. This is a sci-fi geek’s dream in the best kind of way. The concepts are clever, but the emotions are always real: Dorian’s pain at the destruction of another synthetic was palpable and moving.

And yet, in a sign that this show has a great line-up in the writers room, possibly the most moving moment of the episode was the tiny robotic giraffe that Kennex hands to the small child of a kidnapping victim. That emotional moments can be handled so quietly and simply amidst the chaos of the day bodes extremely well for the sophisticated nature of future episodes.

All of the show’s emotions are enhanced by The Crystal Method’s beautiful, futuristic and ambient score, which flows through every scene artfully; it’s up there with the best sci-fi scores, in TV and in film. If machines did dream, this is what it would sound like.

Almost Human has started with an astonishingly assured one-two punch. It’s thrilling TV; exhilarating concepts driven by emotional truths. As long as it can give more time and complexity to Captain Maldonado and Agent Stahl, both of whom currently exist in a “popping in and out of scenes with information” status, there’s nothing to stop this show cementing its status as best new drama of the season.

Random uploads:

  • “You scanned my balls.”
  • Gareth from The Office (the UK original) as a specialist in robots. Brilliant.
  • Kennex stabbing his leg and scaring the kids.
  • That giraffe, man. Beautiful.

SouthLAnd “Under The Big Top” — the greatest show on Earth

SouthLAnd‘s fifth season is shaping up to be its most ruthless and pared down yet, and therefore its most emotionally thrilling.

Everything changes

Everything changes

Under The Big Top was a Sara Gran script, with her distinctive brand of humor and sharp, on the spot character moments. Behind the camera, Felix Alcala brought his aggressive, restless visual style, aided by Dana Gonzales’ impeccable lighting. They made Los Angeles look visceral and amazing, in a clear-eyed, haze-free way this time. This is a show that can occupy different places on its unique viusual spectrum — this episode was all about the middle of the day/late afternoon clarity of the city. It was a particularly great episode for locations that added new dimensions to the scenes, something SouthLAnd excels at. The scene where Cooper and Lucero find a murder suspect and his girl, shot on the other side of the 101 from the Capitol Records building, with the downtown skyscrapers behind them: the light, the traffic, the architecture — it was a passing moment in the script (and a great character moment between Cooper and Lucero), given a kinetic depth by the shooting, framing and editing. This show carves its truths out of the LA landscape with ease.

Incredible shot from Alcala and Gonzales

Incredible shot from Alcala and Gonzales: the detail, the depth of field, the scope and focus of it…

It was a Cooper-centric episode, appropriately, given the title, and his tendency to see the job as one big circus. He had happy moments, tender moments, lonely moments, self-reflective moments, courtesy of Gran’s lovely and understated script. It was a great emotional episode for Cudlitz, who just crushed it in every scene with so much nuance and gravitas and soul. My personal favorite Cooper moment? “Maybe the right one stays.”

On the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, Sherman was still busy shedding his humanity and switching off his ability to care about anyone he deals with on the job (unless that person is Annie Monroe playing a teacher with a pleasing amount of snark, holding her own in every scene).

Relationships, SouthLAnd style: McKenzie and Monroe. Banter not pictured.

Relationships, SouthLAnd style: McKenzie and Monroe. Banter not pictured.

Ben McKenzie is doing truly fantastic work this season, with his almost terrifying transformation from the new boot who couldn’t stop caring, to the hulking, experienced officer who beats the shit out of a perp on a subway train in front of horrified passengers (to be fair, the guy was trying to kick Sherman’s ass, so Sherman knocking him out wasn’t entirely uncalled for). That scene was pure SouthLAnd — rationality and order descend almost instantaneously into utterly visceral violence and chaos. The stunt team are legends, and the entire cast and crew always make these scenes look horribly, breathlessly real. The way McKenzie just sat down in a nearby seat after cuffing the now unconscious criminal, waiting for the next stop, without saying anything to the other passengers, spoke volumes (Seth Cohen was right, he can say SO MUCH without even speaking)(Sorry for the OC reference, but Cohen nailed it — McKenzie is getting Brando-like in his intensity and wordless stares, hollowed out like he’s at the end of Apocalypse Now).

Changing relationships

Changing relationships

So powerful is McKenzie’s performance, he’s actually out-prowling Hatosy in a lot of scenes, which is just what the scripts are calling for. Where once Sammy would have been the hero for caring about a young boy who’s a victim of the system (remember What Makes Sammy Run? A Coker script and one of the greatest episodes of the show), now he is outshined by the sheer magnitude of Sherman’s ruthlessness. Sammy almost seems out of touch in this new, more aggressive world, which is the world of season five (set in motion by the darkness at the end of season four).

The unforgiving glare of harsh truths

The unforgiving glare of harsh truths

The show evolves with each season, and it’s much rawer and more streamlined than ever.

It’s the one inch punch of TV drama.

Random Witness Statements:

  •  The guest stars are extraordinary. Every time.
  • “Maybe you should get a carpet.”
  • Alcala added to the show’s visual texture with his helicopter shots
  • “You got a dirty, dirty mind.”
  • The woman picking up the money in front of Sherman after the train fight — the perfect coda to the scene
  • “For such a genius, you’re awfully handcuffed.”

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.

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?”

“Your kung fu is strong, and your magic is powerful…” NCIS: LA, Cheo Coker-style

Watching Collateral, Cheo Coker’s first episode for NCIS: LA, is an inspiring experience.

His former show, SouthLAnd, was all about character, and only about the plot and the crimes when it related to character. SouthLAnd has never been about solving the crime; it’s about understanding the character. Whereas, NCIS: LA is a plot juggernaut, a procedural freight train that requires its characters to deliver high volumes of exposition as its multi-layered crimes are uncovered. Coker has proved himself the master of deep character revelation through minimalist and fiery dialogue; what would he do with a show that demands huge blocks of time devoted to the procedural details?

Turns out, a tremendous amount.

Writers of TV scripts, movie scripts… hell, whatever kind of writer you are, Coker’s episode contained some invaluable lessons.

1. Character.

In a heavy procedural like this, the majority of the 42 minutes running time is taken up with blocks of discovery, exposition and payoff. That’s the point of the show, and NCIS: LA delivers that with style. What Coker did was fill those brief interludes between procedural necessities with a furious flurry of character-revealing dialogue and banter. He added depth and soul, where many shows would settle for “we’re here, and now we need to go… there.” His riffs on LPs and cartoons allowed him to create a fast-moving, warm dynamic between Callen, Nate, Nell and Hanna. The lesson: every moment, every line and beat and reaction, is a chance to deepen your characters and their relationships. Don’t waste a second of your screenplay. 

Taking every opportunity to deepen relationships

2. Seriously, Character.

But Coker didn’t stop there. Even during the more mechanical components of the plot, he was reflecting character, taking each opportunity to shine a light into the team, showing us what makes them tick, what makes them work well together. For example, even a quick comment about grandstanding partners (along with the reactions in the room) added to what we know about the team and how they feel about each other. The lesson: exposition can be a bitch — so make it fun, vivid, naturalistic… and make it reveal something about your characters as well as the story. The facts of the case are best served up while they are also telling us more about the speaker and the listeners. If your plot point is also a character point, you’re winning.

Exposition alert! Coker makes scenes like this just pop

3. Pop Culture.

Damn. Coker is the true master of the pop culture riff. No one is doing it like him. He emptied clip after clip of pop culture into his SouthLAnd scripts (“Where’s Optimus Prime when you need him?”, riffing on James Ellroy, or Sonny Chiba), and he stepped up again in Collateral, firing off ongoing bits about Hong Kong Phooey vs. Underdog, Isaac Hayes and vinyl LPs vs MP3s, James Bond blu ray box sets, video games… the list goes on. The lesson: keep things LIVELY. It doesn’t have to be via pop culture — that’s hard to pull off naturalistically unless you have a genuine love of and feel for your references — it can be via snark too — but keep the dialogue cracking, multi-dimensional and, above all, revealing. It’s a blast when characters face off about pop culture in the middle of a crisis (a great example of this is Quentin Tarantino’s “silver surfer” rewrites in Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide). It’s also a blast if your characters can talk in snark-tightened one-liners, even as they are discussing plot. Make each line do at least two things. Bring the swagger.

Swagger just out of shot

NCIS: LA is a cool show, with a quick-moving format that can handle cases that broaden their scope as the investigation progresses. Coker’s script was an exceptional example of how to accomplish procedural heavy lifting and character/relationship revelation on the fly, while having an awesome time doing it.

If you can tell stories like that, your viewers/readers will stay with you to the end.  

Anticipating SouthLAnd Season 5

Rewatching SouthLAnd‘s great and groundbreaking season 4 got me thinking: where could or should the show go in season 5?

In the SouthLAnd, anything can happen

It’s a show that thrives on evolution, after all. In a Doctor Who kind of way, it regenerates with every season. And it does this boldly, fearlessly… SouthLAnd style. From Wednesday to Thursday (Jonathan Lisco’s rather brilliantly low-key titles for eps 1 and 10), the show took some pretty hardcore narrative leaps, and went to darker places than ever before. It was more distilled, its signature intensity crystallized into something even harder and more beautiful. It’s made up of shards that are brutally sharp and reflect the light, sometimes blindingly. I mean this narratively, visually, emotionally, psychologically. I was thinking to myself, how could they possibly do this again, but better, take it further, in season 5?

Then I realized.

The answers lie in what for my money were the two greatest episodes of season 4: Integrity (ep 6, wr. Jonathan Lisco, dir. Chris Chulack, DoP Jimmy Muro), and God’s Work (ep 8, wr. Cheo Coker, dir. Guy Norman Bee, DoP Dana Gonzales).

These two eps broke new ground, pushed the show further and harder: Integrity Check was a new kind of television, using the documentry crew device to access new depth and force, while God’s Work hit hard with powerful soulfulness. They both showed how SouthLAnd can do what it has always done: evolve yet again, and continue to stay hungry and focused.

How, I hear you ask!

I’ll tell ya.

It’s pretty bold though. Fair warning!

One element that the show did seem to struggle with in season 4, and it was really the only element, was integrating the detectives’ storylines fully. That is, making them relevant to the episode in general, and also making them resonant with what was going on in Lydia and Ruben’s lives. It didn’t happen often, but there were a couple of episodes where they seemed detached from the rest of the show, and even from the crimes they were investigating.

But in episode 6, Lisco did something brilliant. He put Lydia back in uniform, back in the patrol car.

Lydia Adams… a future in uniform?

Genius.

What if for season 5, they shifted entirely to patrol officers — and hold up all you angry Regina King fans, I totally mean that she should be one of them! If you look back, there seems to be an irresistible gravity pulling the show in that direction. One by one the detectives transfer out (of the force, of life… RIP Nate). And the show has already shown us that Lydia can handle a uniform and patrol car. It may be crazy, but it might just supercharge the entire season. And I know who I’d want to see Regina King in the car with; I’m sure we all have some good ideas about that.

Integrity Check was a stripped back and raw episode, a more intense, enhanced version of the show that I believe should be the template for season 5. Chulack and Muro took full advantage of the brilliant device of the documentary film crew to really push things forward visually and directorially. Just look at the depth of field and incredible detail of the precise shot composition below — think of that as an analogy of how the storytelling could accommodate a narrower focus:

Cudlitz, Liu, and some gorgeously detailed depth of field… Kudos to Muro & Chulack

But this is a show that thrives on diversity and balance. Underlying its surface immediacy and intensity are deep, soulful grooves of emotion and desire; the overwhelming force of what it means to be human. This show, more than any other, is utterly rooted in character. And God’s Work was the prime example of that.

Michael Cudlitz, Lawrence Gilliard Jr, and about a thousand lens flares courtesy of DoP Dana Gonzales

Coker’s wonderful script was elevated by some of the best directing in the show’s history courtesy of Guy Norman Bee, with Dana Gonzales shooting it all in a combination of a golden hazes and harshly desaturated glares… both reflecting the soul of Los Angeles, and of the show.

Shawn Hatosy and Ben McKenzie in a beautifully directed (and acted) scene

Although I’m proposing a detective-free next season, I must point out that God’s Work was the perfect and best example of how to pull patrol officers and detectives into one powerful, cohesive episode (which should be no surprise since Coker wrote it; he was the first and only writer to pull the entire original cast into one scene in Punching Water). But we could think of it as a goodbye… the best example of integrating the show’s dual levels, and the platform from which everything changes.

Can the show be soulful without detectives? It can. It just has to bring that soulfulness in via more focused means. Regina King’s eyes, Muro’s and Gonzales’ lighting, the brillliance of Lisco’s ideas, the ferociousness of Chulack’s directing, and the brilliance of Guy Norman Bee’s helming.

And, of course, the incredible, peerless cast.

I loved the show when it had the full cast spread out over patrol and detective work, but I’ve loved it even more as it became streamlined, faster-moving, more raw. I know whatever direction the writers and producers take it in, I’ll continue to love it. I can’t wait to see what they come up with, because from writers to producers to cast to crew, this is the best team in the business. They’ve earned our trust and loyalty a thousand times over. These are just the humble musings of a fan; I don’t doubt for a second that wherever the producers choose to take us, season 5 will be utterly surprising, and utterly brilliant.