“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.

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.

SouthLAnd “Fallout”

SouthLAnd continued its peerless run of emotionally intense episodes with Fallout, dealing with the visceral disintegration of key relationships on the show. It could equally well have been called Things Falling Apart, because it was brutal like the Nine Inch Nails remix album, and in some ways the show is remixing itself, foregrounding its more emotionally violent elements. SouthLAnd has always  challenged its characters by pushing them beyond their limits and confronting their personal hells. In this episode, it did so in even more unflinching ways.

Certainties crumbled and trust imploded as the foundation-shaking earthquake of Etan Frankel’s script met Allison Anders’ up close and personal direction; and the actors served up raw, phsyical, wounded performances, finding a way to peel back yet another layer of emotional skin and reveal their hearts and souls.

Frankel, a former playwright and Friday Nights Lights writer, who also writes for John Wells’ other brilliant show Shameless, wrote a perfectly spare and forceful script. It laid out the cases with the minimum of fuss, and gave the actors an actors dream of gut-punching, soul-wrenching, no-going-back-from-that dialogue.

The visceral script was coupled with Allison Anders’ inspired directing style, which is all about making everything richer: the framing, the light, and the performances. She brought the camera in close to the actors’ faces, giving the actors more physicality than usual, bringing us closer to their pain, their seething rage, their exploding passions. Now, SouthLAnd is a show that is all about motion and kineticism, but Anders showed us that this isn’t always about the camera chasing after Sherman or Bryant. Here, Anders made the bold choice (in the context of this show) to frequently hold the camera still, very still, and let the actors play out their discomfort. It’s like Anders has her own zen martial art directing style: the kinetic scenes were brutal; but the stillness hit even harder.

The performances hurt, even more than usual. Frankel’s venomous script gave Ben McKenzie and Shawn Hatosy some painful, knife-twisting scenes. You truly felt Sherman’s growing frustration as he tried to make things up to Bryant after accusing him of being a dirty cop and facing Bryant’s almost showboating refusal to back down. But when Sherman dropped the Nate-bomb on Bryant, and told him that was the last apology he was getting… well damn son. That was extraordinarily awkward, deeply painful, and emotionally complicated drama, conveyed in true minimalist SouthLAnd style with a couple of perfectly written lines, some close-up camerwork, and unbearable intensity from both actors.

Even more intense were the scenes between Michael Cudlitz and Lucy Liu. Tang was having a very bad day, which got worse when she shot an unarmed suspect, and then tampered with the crime scene as Cooper showed up. Cooper may be flawed, damaged, full of demons, but he’s a damn good cop, and with exemplary cop’s instincts, he knew that Tang had been doing something she shouldn’t, something she didn’t even need to do. Lucy Liu did a tremendous job unraveling Tang’s tightly wired demeanor, and Cudlitz was fantastic as he wrestled with the no-win moral situation she had put him in, and then unleashed his fury on her after they’d both been questioned. Liu got a great coda, in which we saw her guilt and frustration blow up. And Cudlitz took every single viewer to the edge by making us utterly believe that he was about to start using again, when in fact he was meeting his sponsor for help.

Dorian Missick and Regina King had some soulful and compelling scenes, as Lydia still refused to admit her “condition”, even as Ruben showed his genuine, caring and supportive side. Frankel gave them some beautiful lines, Anders shot it in lovely fashion, and the actors were fantastic.

As everything falls apart, the show heads into its final three episodes of the season, beginning with episode eight, God’s Work, which features a Cheo Coker script directed by Guy Norman Bee. It promises to be an extraordinary continuation of the dark arcs that the show is playing out.

SouthLAnd’s concussion-inducing “Legacy”

“Just when you think you’ve seen everything… You haven’t.”

As SouthLAnd‘s season 4 reaches its halfway point, there’s no better way to sum up the season — and the show itself — than in these words that Cooper uttered midway through Legacy.

You never know what’s coming; even when you think you know, even when what you thought you knew was going to happen actually happens — because this show will twist and turn and throw you around and hang you over the edge of a building before its done with you.

This is a show that gives you what you want, for sure: escalating, bad-ass banter and busting on each other from Sammy and Ben; Dewey telling his beautifully insane stories; Tang slow-burning beneath her cool exterior; Cooper facing down the idiots and clowns of this world. But you never quite know how it’s going to do it. Sure ,when Cooper pulls over a Smart car for a traffic violation, you know there’s going to be a “hey numbnuts!” somewhere in the driver’s immediate future. But you don’t know what the driver will do: will there be an argument, a fight, shots fired? Will it be sad, brutal, funny (or all three since SouthLAnd likes to operate on those levels simultaneously)?

It’s unknown trouble, 24/7.

Where SouthLAnd thrives is the way it subverts and makes new all of its story beats. Expectations are gloriously met and then even more gloriously f**ked with. You know the guy that Sammy persuades to snitch is gonna get shot for it; but you don’t know the kind of humanity mixed with brutal, bruise-inducing humor that the show will serve up afterwards. You know that the suicidal teen who Cooper saves isn’t done with his mission to die, but you have no idea how the show is going to motor right through that and focus on Cooper’s made-of-steel strength of mind and soul, as conveyed by Michael Cudlitz’s towering, Emmy-worthy performance.

SouthLAnd hides its emotional sledgehammers in the quietest of moments. The final few minutes of the show were all about Cudlitz’s eyes, his subtlety, his frankly extraordinary ability to convey powerhouse feelings in the most nuanced of movements. The way he handled the news of the teen’s fate was jaw-droppingly great. Not a surprise to anyone who’s seen the show before, but painfully intense and powerful.

That’s just how SouthLAnd rolls.

This was a monster of an episode, written by Heather Zuhlke, who turned in a script that was emotionally sophisticated and relentless, was the funniest in the show’s history, and also clocked up what might be the highest number of bleeps heard on the show to date. Zuhlke knows how to make us cry and laugh, and she can swear like a m**therf**ker. These are all great qualities in a screenwriter. She delivered on raw, hardcore drama and an almost vicious, savage humor that was woven seamlessly into the high-impact, concussion-inducing emotional power of her stories.

Like Cheo Coker’s scripts, Zuhlke’s Legacy was essentially constructed from killer one-liners that zinged with percussive force and velocity. There were far too many to quote: my personal favorite was Lydia’s “I’m hormonal and I’ve got a gun… don’t mess with me.”

Zuhlke’s words were brought vividly to life by this week’s director, The Legendary Jimmy Muro. He shot the show with a distinctive aesthetic you could think of as “shotguns and palm trees.” Everything was harsher and more beautiful. His camera found unusual angles, peering through the dense architecture of the city, seeing L.A. in deep, burnished gold and rich, dark shadows. His images are always so complex and layered, with such depth, even as we focus on the immediacy of the action. Hell, even when it rained he made it look great. Muro has a long and distinguished history with a camera (he shot Heat, L.A. Confidential, Titanic, and Collateral, amongst many others), and he’s the perfect lenser for this show.

Everyone involved in this show is operating at the height of their powers, and it’s thrilling to experience.

Based on the escalating nature of episodes 1-5, and the story arcs that have been set up (revving, gunning their engines, ready to explode), it seems pretty clear that episodes 6 through 10 are going to blow our minds. It’s going to be a crazy, intense, emotionally exhausting ride; but we love it.

This is what we want from SouthLAnd, and this it was it gives us, and then some. We think we know how awesome it’s going to be, but we don’t. Because SouthLAnd always goes way beyond our already heightened expectations.

Every time.