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.
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SouthLAnd takes a “Risk”

It’s a testament to the unmatched greatness of SouthLAnd that in its 32 episodes to date, it has raised its quality bar to a dizzyingly brutal degree.

When this show blows up and comes at you, it’s identical to none.

So when the occasional scene doesn’t quite get it done, you feel it. And, brutal truth (SouthLAnd style), there were some scenes in Risk, early on, that felt somewhat more perfunctory than usual, that didn’t seem to grab us emotionally, or propel us forward. Some of the dialogue didn’t zing like it normally does, and moments that should have been impactful felt discarded too soon.

But it all came together brilliantly at the end, when Jimmy Muro wreaked havoc at the intersection of Elysian Park and Sunset. Those final few scenes with Lydia, Ben and Sammy were a devastating gut punch followed by a massive right hook to the head that left you on your ass seeing stars.

Like only SouthLand can.

Muro was truly the MVP of this episode: the climactic car chase/shooting/traffic collision was as off the hook and heart-poundingly, breathlessly visceral as anything the show has ever done. You thought Cooper’s throat-savaging was intense — you weren’t even ready for the crushingly sudden, shocking action here.

Time and time again, the show has shown us that all cops live in constant state of unknown trouble — anything can happen at any time. SouthLAnd will slam your expectations off the street and total them as quickly and easily as the SUV took out Sammy’s patrol car. This scene was a masterpiece. Most of the time, the show likes to obliterate its characters’ belief systems with brutal emotional collisions: this time it did it literally, totaling the patrol car in a devastating, terrifying way. It took your breath away and flooded you with adrenaline.

It left you shaking.

Give Muro any and all awards you can find please.

He did great work with Risk: the backdrop to Lydia and Ruben’s case — that mountain range of cranes against the steel sky — was beautifully, almost philosophically, bleak and austere, and fully deserved the multiple shots and angles. It was absolutely a commentary on the action: a sense of hopelessness, of things never changing.

Elsewhere, Muro found numerous ways to give us glimpses of downtown L.A. through the mid-afternoon haze, like a monster looming through the mist. And he broke out what felt like lesser-used angles for SouthLAnd: putting the camera on the outside of the passenger side looking squarely in on the driver, or hanging out the back window to look along the left side of the car during extended driving scenes. These were new textures to the show’s visual language, and they worked. He also gave us the sheer rush of skateboarding down an empty road at 40 mph — from the unfiltered clarity of the lens to the endless blue sky. It was a simple moment of euphoria.

But nothing can compare to the simpler shots of Regina King doing her finest, rawest acting of the season to date (so good and so distressing that it really messed with the viewer), and that car crash — and unlike what happened after Integrity Check, this time the promo for next week gave nothing away, leaving us in agonizing suspense about Sammy’s fate.

Let’s be clear: SouthLAnd will kick your ass. Every time. Because it’s a beautiful, brilliant show. When it’s flawless, nothing can beat it. Even when it doesn’t quite get there some of the time, you know it’s gonna sock you upside the head by the end, and when it does, there’s nothing you can do about it.

TNT, you gotta renew this m***erf***er. It’s truly phenomenal television. You knew it when you saved it from NBC. You knew it when you gave us this amazing season 4.

You still know it.

So please — give this show a 20-episode season 5, and incredible things will happen. SouthLAnd is your Mad Men, your Walking Dead, your Game Of Thrones.

Treat it that way, and it will become something unprecedented in TV. Even more than it is now.

Respect to the cast and crew: bring on that season finale!

Random observations:

  • Kudos to Chitra Sampath for contributing the “she didn’t say the safe word” elements of the  S&M domestic dispute — adding the perfect spin to one of the show’s more awesomely insane highlights.
  • Some of the other situations were kinda beautiful in their oddball charm — who couldn’t love drunk golf ball guy?

SouthLAnd aces its “Integrity Check”

If ever there was a show that didn’t need an integrity check, it’s SouthLAnd. No show has ever been more authentic.

And this was one of its most stripped back, brutal episodes.

It started with the photoflash freezeframe voiceover, which was much more to the point than usual: the average street cop in Los Angeles makes $75,000 a year… it’s not enough.

It really isn’t, judging by the hell that our characters have to fight through every week, which sometimes comes from the cases they work, and other times is of their own making. However it occurs, the characters on SouthLAnd get pushed further and harder than those on any other show. It’s f**king brutal, but it’s what makes the greatest dramas.

This week was rough. It had its funny scenes, of course, because this show can be violent and dark and horribly sad and gut-punchingly funny at any given moment, without ever sacrificing its ability to grab you in an emotional choke-hold or make you laugh while it’s doing it. Whether it was Sherman’s “leap of shame” or Dewey’s entirely expected yet so much worse than you expected ranting in front of the documentary crew, Integrity Check brought the raw humor when it wanted to.

It just didn’t want to very often. With this sixth episode, SouthLAnd turned the corner of darkness and pain that it’s been heading towards since the start of the season. You get the feeling things are only going to get more messed up from here.

Ben McKenzie and Shawn Hatosy nailed the disintegration of the trust between them, bringing a raw energy that made their performances more wrenching. Regina King was superlative, as she always is, dealing with Lydia’s temporary return to uniform duty with the almost unbearably visceral physical challenges that involves. But while we might have thought what happened to her was awful, we had no idea what was waiting for us at the end of Cooper’s shift.

Once again, this show reveals just how much of a knife-edge cops walk on, every minute of every day. Anything can happen at any time, and it can be goddamned terrible and come out of nowhere. Michael Cudlitz again stepped up and delivered an Emmy-worthy performance as Cooper found himself suddenly embroiled in a truly horrific and shockingly savage fight to the almost death. It was intensely physical, taking the show’s already extraordinary physicality to a new, transcendently brutal level.

It was breathless television, unbelievable, unwatchable almost, although you couldn’t tear your eyes away.

That’s what SouthLAnd does to you.

It was a great script that took us to that terrible place, penned by SouthLAnd’s master of brutal precision, Jonathan Lisco, with story editing by Chitra Sampath. Lisco brings an emotional scalpel to his stories, flaying characters bare, down to the bone. His scripts are always perfect studies in structure, pace, and ruthless execution. Sampath brings a wonderfully unhinged sense of humor (her “find my friends app” scene in Failure Drill is still one of the greatest comedy moments of the show), and an impeccable sense of controlled chaos coupled with the ability to unleash it at the exact right moment. With Sampath on board, all hell will typically break loose, at the worst moment for our characters. And so it does here.

A script by Lisco demands the greatest of the SouthLAnd directors, Christopher Chulack. While John Wells runs the writers room, it’s Chulack who is on the street, running the other directors, and acting as the guardian of SouthLAnd‘s visual aesthetic. In this, he is ably assisted by the greatest director of photography in film and TV, Jimmy Muro. Between them, Chulack & Muro create masterpieces of depth and motion with the L.A. light and locations. Two particular examples out of many: the reflections of palm trees along the strip mall windows where Cooper and Tang deal with the “cake incident”; the depth of field and rich, endless golden light behind Cooper as the documentary crew film him after he lets the driver with expired registration go.

The episode was full of such moments, and it had a new layer this time round: that of the camera crew filming the cops. This allowed Chulack & Muro to change visual textures and create constantly evolving looks for the episode as they switched between the documentary, and the show’s normal look (which is ultra-heightened, desaturated documentary). It was a fascinating decision to introduce this conceptual and visual layer, and it worked perfectly.

Episodes of SouthLAnd are like the Sistine Chapel of television. Chulack & Muro are artists of the streets. But it’s art that knocks you flat on your ass with its impact. They’re refining their approach with every episode, and Integrity Check represented a new level of beautiful detail, deep light, layers upon complex layers; all of which drove the shocking and visceral moment to moment heart-stopping action, which was front and center throughout. It was, visually, a beautiful & haunting episode. As happens so often, it was a masterclass in framing, composition, lighting, depth and motion.

Let’s face it, SouthLAnd is a show that will wrestle you to the ground and savage you emotionally. It may lull you with the beauty of Los Angeles, the punch of its humor, the soulful camaraderie of its characters, but don’t let it: because it will come for you eventually, and put you through the ringer, leaving you exhausted, drained, shaking.

It’s what you keep coming back for.

SouthLAnd: Graduation Day

And so, with a building, searing intensity, the final episode of SouthLAnd‘s season three roared to its emotionally explosive conclusion.

Such a bittersweet moment for fans and presumably creators alike. As the opening voiceover reminded us, sometimes you just have to make that leap. Throughout its two year, three season, 23 episode history, SouthLAnd has been fearless and unflinching, never hesitating as it ran over the rooftops of network and cable drama, fast, fitter, harder than the rest.

With Graduation Day, the show delivered astonishingly, beautifully, heartbreakingly, poetically and ball-bustingly on all the narrative arcs it had set up and laid down in the previous 22 episodes. Such relentless emotional follow-through is rare in TV drama. Comparing the events of the episode to the original pilot script, broadcast as Unknown Trouble, it’s an intense and moving experience to see how the show has so powerfully come into its own. It’s followed Ben Sherman from that terrifying first day, full of the unknown trouble of the title, through to his, and the show’s, graduation. Although Sherman has often been a quiet presence, SouthLAnd has always been powered by his story. Both Sherman and the show now stand on the edge of a new era in their existence. SouthLAnd has done a phenomenal job of maintaining its core truths while aggressively evolving within its world. Season three has seen the show expand, despite the budgetary hardships of the move to cable — it feels bigger than ever, and that is a testament to the extraordinary creative team, working harder and smarter than ever to deliver the best cop show of all time, and one of the undisputed, heavyweight greatest TV dramas I’ve ever seen.

What an episode it was. Part graduation, part commencement speech for the future. And lots of running. With a story by Heather Zuhkle, teleplay by John Wells, direction from Christopher Chulack, and eerie, beautiful, raw and hypnotic lighting from Jimmy Muro, Graduation Day was a full court press from start to finish. This season has showcased great and powerful writing and directing from Cheo Coker, Chitra Sampath, Allison Anders, Muro, and many, many others. But you have to bow down to the showrunners, the OGs: when John Wells and Christopher Chulack step up to the plate, they don’t f**k around. The pedal goes to the metal and stays there.

Whether it was bringing a season’s worth of crackling tension to an explosive conclusion as Lydia sparred against Josie about dating her son, or fulfilling the promise of the first season by having Sammy finally become a father (in messed up circumstances to be sure, but it’s him and Tammi, it couldn’t be any other way), Graduation Day handled its storylines and emotional arcs perfectly. It was great to watch Regina King play Lydia’s happy yet complex arc in this episode, creating one of the most enjoyable storylines of the show to date.

Most cathartic and showstopping of all of the narratives was the inevitable, long-awaited showdown between Sherman and Cooper, as Sherman finally, monumentally lost it on his disintegrating training officer. McKenzie and Cudlitz unloaded both barrels on each other for this scene, tearing the scene apart with their bare hands. McKenzie had some work to do. Following on from his bare knuckle rooftop fight with his suspect (one of the most painfully raw, real, intense and prolonged fight scenes we’ve seen on TV), McKenzie had to raise his game to take on the mighty presence of Cudlitz, formidable even when he has to play someone barely holding on. It was a great, classic scene, resonating with all the force of its two-year build-up.

Michael Cudlitz laid it down in this episode, anchoring the entire show with the craggy, iconic power of his performance. His acting ranged from intensely physical (his truly heartbreaking attempts to climb the ladder), to painfully intense (“I did f**king chase after you!”), to devastatingly quiet and detailed (saying “thank you” to Sherman; checking himself into rehab). Cudlitz stepped up to the plate and batted 1000. McKenzie delivered too: after three seasons of mostly having to repress his impulses, he finally got to explode with full force and authority, literally tearing Cudlitz up from the street and laying into him: “you’re a f**king goddamn useless training officer.” It was great f**king television.

It was a hell of a season for Sammy Bryant. Throughout it, Shawn Hatosy prowled like De Niro, tore it up like Sean Penn, and brought a restless, relentless energy to the role. He had some gruelling, raw scenes, and he gave them everything. Hatosy had a powerful, extraordinary season. This episode captured all of it. From the scenes in the delivery room, to the catharsis of seeing Nate’s killer die (“Nate Moretta, motherf**ker”), to the revelation that his newborn son was called Nathaniel, to his desperate look at the photo of himself and Nate, Hatosy took the outstanding scenes and beats given to him by John Wells and brought them to life with beautiful authenticity. It was heartbreaking. And it made his final scenes all the more bad-ass: as he walked out in uniform with his new partner, the one and only Ben Sherman, Hatosy showed us just how damn awesome season four is going to be as they trade the quirky streets of Hollywood for the tougher world of Alvarado.

In this final scene, we also discovered that Sherman has graduated nicknames, from Boot to Pup. Although Sherman must have felt like he was back at the start in some ways, that wry smile on McKenzie’s face in the final shot said it all: this shit is only going to get better.

As the show heads into its seemingly inevitable season four, one thing needs to be made clear: we need more Michael McGrady, C. Thomas Howell and Arija Bareikis! McGrady brought his customary presence and gravitas, backing it up this week with some heartfelt emotion, anchoring the scene with Sammy at the end with fatherly concern and genuine worry. Howell and Bareikis are great together, with snappy chemistry and a natural rhythm.

It’s important to take a moment here to acknowledge that this was the season Jimmy Muro came into his own, and brought the entire show with him. As director of photography, Muro did extraordinary things with light on this season, taking the show’s raw, kinetic aesthetic, and imbuing it with the otherworldly sheen of an ethereal sci-fi dream. And as director of two episodes (Cheo Coker’s Cop Or Not and Chitra Sampath’s Failure Drill), Muro unleashed his vision, creating haunting, complex visual textures that recalled Blade Runner and Star Trek with their deep ambient quality and mesmerizing lens flare. Muro is the master of that legendary Los Angeles light: dealing with it head-on in the show’s signature bleached-out, oversaturated glare, bringing in new visual grace notes by reflecting magic hour light on the downtown skyscrapers. Muro brought vital extra dimensions to SouthLAnd, creating yet another way in which the show effortlessly, quietly, almost imperceptibly differentiated itself from its peers.

At the time of writing, no announcement has been made by TNT about the show’s future. Renewal seems highly likely with the steady increase in ratings (Graduation Day being the highest rated of the season), and the sheer bench strength of the entire cast and crew. This is a brutally high quality production, and it deserves a long future. Finally, the awards have started coming to the show: Regina King recently and deservedly won the NAACP award for Outstanding Actress In A Drama Series — this must surely only be the beginning of a wave of writing, acting and technical awards for this peerless show.

All that remains is for me to say a heartfelt thank you to everyone involved in bringing this amazing show to our screens. It’s had a huge impact on me, on my writing and my life. It’s been an extraordinary ride so far, and all the elements are in place for SouthLAnd to take it to the next level in season four.

Until then, I’ll leave you with John Cooper’s words of wisdom:

“Look sharp, act sharp, be sharp.”

SouthLAnd: Survival

Over the freeze frame of the flame of gunfire came the theme of Failure Drill: “To protect and to serve, that’s the LAPD motto… But as most cops’ll tell ya, sometimes you’re lucky if you can just survive.”

And this was an episode all about trying to survive, trying to make it through the day, trying to just stay upright and awake, trying not to lose it, trying not to die, and, often, trying not to laugh so damn hard. The signature SouthLAnd blend.

Written by Chitra Elizabeth Sampath, Failure Drill was her first script for the show, although you would never know it: the episode was classic season three SouthLAnd, one of the best-written this season. It was an assured and playful script that did what SouthLAnd does best, being full of smart turns, sharp dialogue, jaw-droppingly “no that just didn’t happen” humor, swift and surprising reversals, and a clear line of sight right to the emotional heart of the show. She advanced major storylines, threw in great, thrilling and truthful character moments, and wove it all together in a fast-moving, never-stopping express train.

The show opened with Lydia being trained in the titular failure drill. This referred to a police shooting technique: shoot the attacker twice in the chest to see if they’re wearing a vest. If they don’t go down, shoot once more to the head. This is exactly what SouthLAnd does emotionally, and it proved to be a great metaphor for the episode that followed.

Sampath showed us Lydia at her absolute best, and Regina King took full advantage of the huge range that Lydia got to explore. Whether it was her masterful handling of the husband who murdered his wife, her empathy with their son, her deep struggle with whether to let herself relax and open up to the possibility of dating Morales, or her all-out action hero scenes at the end, King threw herself body and soul into all of it.

Shawn Hatosy had some great scenes too, showing us how he’s at the very top of his game, crackling with energy, rage and authority. Hatosy’s best scene was his priceless reaction to the staggering next level of Tammi’s insanity, which literally came out of nowhere in a fantastically perfect interchange, one of Sampath’s finest in the episode. A heavily pregnant Tammi showed up unexpectedly, interrupting Sammy’s questioning of a suspect. “How the hell did you find me?” Sammy asked her. “I put a Find My Friends app on your phone,” she replied. Hatosy’s reaction shot was f**king brilliant — Sammy could barely process this: “I’m a gang detective,” he manfully forced out in utter disbelief, “I can’t have a f**king Find My Friends app on my phone.” Tammi struck back with, “are we having this baby together, or not?” Her mission to completely f*ck with Sammy’s head continues successfully.

The main event in this episode, though, was John Cooper’s steady, seemingly unstoppable descent into hell, via his painkiller addiction. Sampath handled this with great subtlety and style, choreographing Ben and John’s scenes with finesse. Their “off the record” conversation was heartbreaking, but artfully messed up, in true SouthLAnd style. Ben McKenzie and Michael Cudlitz both gave the scene, and the episode, all the intensity they had, and it was great. Their arc also showed Sampath’s real strength: delivering character development and raw emotion on the fly and deep beneath the surface of fast-moving, brutal dialogue. All of which is frequently broken up by absolute jewels of brilliant comedy, like Sherman demonstrating the child car seats, or Adams discovering who Morales was related to — surely one of the most awesome surprises ever thrown at us by the show.

There’s no doubt that with this episode, Sampath executed her own failure drill on all the other cop shows out there, dropping them in three.

But as wonderfully written as this episode was, it’s now time to hail the relatively unsung hero of SouthLAnd, the master of light and motion, the man who turns the lens into an emotional perspective and makes everything look harshly beautiful, making LA look simultaneously just like it is, and like we’ve never seen it before: the one and only Jimmy Muro. Failure Drill was the best looking SouthLAnd episode of all three seasons. Muro, usually the director of photography on the show, directed this one, proving himself (not that it needed proving) to be the grand master of the show’s aesthetic.

He lit and shot the shit out of the show this week. Using hypnotic lens flare, brutal oversaturation, and great visual textures (from the golden light of the Hollywood day to the deep blue of dusk in downtown LA), Muro elevated the show to new visual heights, relentlessly pursuing a futuristic aesthetic that enhanced the emotional bullet-like precision of the show. As Lydia prowled the levels of the factory towards the end of the show, searching for the shooter who had massacred many of the workers, Muro lit the scenes like the end of Blade Runner, bringing a haunting art deco depth and future-retro timelessness to the atmosphere. He followed this up by lighting the final scene with Ben and Cooper like it was shot in an alien city many years from now, all shining blue-white flare and futuristic light. It was mesmerizing, compelling and remarkable.

Failure Drill was the perfect set up for the season finale, Graduation Day. As the fans await news of renewal (and maybe a blu-ray box set), we have the prospect of an awesome finale to look forward to. This is the show that keeps surviving, because it’s just so damn good.