SouthLAnd: “Thursday” — Moment Of Truth

SouthLAnd excels at forcing its characters into moments of truth.

Time slows down and a crossroads opens up before them: will they walk the righteous path, or sell their souls?

This entire season, Officer Ben Sherman has been following a path that lead him to the deadly decision: what kind of cop is he going to be? Each choice he’s made so far has taken him deeper into the darkness. By the end of God’s Work, he didn’t recognize who he was any more. Without that self-knowledge, his moral markers were gone, and no matter how hard Sammy tried, Sherman really had gone past the point of no return.

And in this episode, writer Jonathan Lisco and director Chris Chulack went full Taxi Driver to make sure Sherman went all the way over the edge.

Lisco’s script was flint-sharp and ruthless. Always an extremely emotionally and conceptually precise writer, here Lisco was even more ferocious with his dialogue and action. Every line had urgency; every beat ratcheted you closer to the end. The scenes were sharpened to deadly points and lethal edges. Such was the intelligence underlying the script that by the time Lydia walked into that hospital room where the burned child lay helpless, no dialogue was even needed as Lisco and Chulack gave us one of the single most upsetting images we’ve ever seen on this show.

SouthLAnd will devastate you with an almost casual ease.

While Sherman was off choking hookers for information, Cooper had to endure Tang’s frankly unendurable “last day on patrol” smugness. Much as I can’t disapprove of any reference to Nicki Minaj’s far-too-awesome Superbass, it was tough to watch Tang torturing that kid. If ever a Cooper “hey numbnuts” was needed, it was here. Likewise with getting Cooper to take her picture in front of the Hollywood sign. So the showdown near the end where Cooper lost it on her was a great SouthLAnd moment. Cudlitz deployed his emotional gravitas to punishing effect, while Lucy Liu gave it right back — she has done a tremendous job this season, holding her own scene for scene with an unfussy, powerful, stripped-back performance.

It was an episode of heavyweight performances.

Regina King broke our hearts, again. She does it so well, so simply. “What we do, it’s hard enough to not let it get to you… now it’s like it’s going in too deep. And if it is, where’s it going?”

Shawn Hatosy did incredible, soulful work. Even confined to a hospital bed at the start, and a deckchair by the pool at the end, he harnessed his “raging bull” energy and radiated it throughout both scenes. I pointed out a few weeks back that Hatosy has a unique way of prowling around a scene with restless, hungry energy; as SouthLAnd superfan Deb @bluegrassbabe3 pointed out today, even when Hatosy is sitting down, he’s still prowling; such is his presence. He’s a great, great actor.

But there’s no doubt that the episode belonged to Ben McKenzie. His portrayal of a man whose soul is being steadily stripped away was bleak, raw, understated and unflinching. He showed us an officer who shattered his previous self, and now has to find his way through the fragments of what he used to be. By the time that the episode closed with Sherman sitting back at the pool party as the Stones’ Street Fighting Man played on the soundtrack (spot-on song choice, and only the fourth or so time the show has used a song), it was as though he was settling in to his new existence. I’m not sure what’s more terrifying/devastating — that he lost himself to the darkness, or that he’s actually getting comfortable with it. Either way, it’s brilliant writing, setting up some great Bryant/Sherman story possibilities for season five.

Throughout the episode, Chris Chulack directed with a ruthless eye, as Jimmy Muro gave us a bleakly lit, cloudy, steely L.A. Chulack’s visceral style was honed to an even sharper edge than usual. If Sherman went racing round a corner, the camera would steadily follow him, like a shark, deadly and unstoppable. Everything was stripped back to an absolute purity of purpose. There were no skateboarding interludes in this episode. Just a ferociously relentless commitment to the truth.

Which is what this show has always been about. It’s why we love it.

It’s why SouthLAnd is one of the greatest TV dramas of our time, of any time. It’s why TNT has to renew it for an extended season 5. It’s why Warner Bros. really, really needs to release a deluxe Blu Ray box set with extended directors cuts, commentaries from writers, cast and crew, behind the scenes and the like — trust me, WB and TNT, if that box set comes out in enough time for new viewers to watch all four seasons prior to the season five opening episode, your ratings will be extraordinary. Can you imagine The Walking Dead or Game Of Thrones or Mad Men not being on DVD?

Exactly.

It’s been an amazing season four. The writers, the cast, the crew — they’ve all excelled themselves, raising the bar yet again, like this show always does. SouthLAnd is better than its ever been — which is rare for a fourth season. It’s rolling hard. And it leaves no doubt that season five would be the greatest yet.

Thank you to everyone involved with the show. I was fortunate enough to meet the cast and crew in L.A. recently; they are an incredibly smart, humble, hardworking, talented bunch, all utterly commited to making this show the best on TV.

It’s working.

I can’t wait to to tune in next year and hear once more, this is A36, show us handling.

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: “Wednesday”

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

Freeze frame.

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

Unfreeze.

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

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

This is how you open a season.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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: Coker plays the blues

In Fixing A Hole, writer Cheo Hodari Coker got to play the blues with his script, laying down classic grooves, finessing new phrasings, and blowing hard when he needed to. This script was like the jazz in Kerouac’s On The Road: raw, real, skillful and powerful.

The episode was also notable for finally bringing Yara Martinez in from the periphery of the show. She has a quietly hypnotic acting style that consumes her scenes in the best kind of way. Up until now, playing Nate’s widow Mariella Moretta, she’s been doing beautiful, haunting work with the briefest of screen time, but in this episode she got to take center stage with her warm, emotional artistry. In fact, this was something of a theme: Fixing A Hole was all about taking control, moving forward, taking your moment in the spotlight. What you do with that moment is what defines you.

It was a simple blues in some ways, asking the question, what makes a man or a woman who they really are?

Whether it was Lydia and Josie wrangling their alcoholic witness, Cooper and Sherman chasing down leads to find out what had really happened to 9 year old Michael Peterson, or Sammy taking his suspect out to the desert and making him dig his potential grave, the characters had to deal with or face up to their own darkness, or the darkness of those around them.

Coker invoked old time Hollywood as well as his usual perfectly chosen and delivered array of pop culture references, everything from Charlie’s Angels to Transformers (C. Thomas Howell nailed Dewey’s line, “where’s Optimus Prime when you need him?”), to the king of crime and old-school 40s Hollywood, James Ellroy himself. “I had a callback for L.A. Confidential,” says Lydia’s witness as they have dinner at the Pacific Dining Car (“James Ellroy’s favorite restaurant”), “then I found out Kim Basinger was interested. Story of my life.”

These kinds of references really make the script pop; they give it swagger and life. Coker is a master at this game, but he can write lines that fly at you like roundhouses. When Sammy tries to persuade a bank teller to waive a rule to make things easier on Mariella as she deals with Nate’s accounts, he clinches his case with “he was killed protecting your right to give her shit.” Damn. Elsewhere, Michael Cudlitz had the line of the episode, as Cooper loses his shit with a social worker. She tells him she has a master’s degree, to which he explodes, “And I have a PhD in street, who gives a shit.”

The episode was beautifully shot by Christopher Chulack, who is a maestro of the RED One cameras and the way they capture light. Chulack always finds the most interesting and yet utterly unobtrusive angles from which to play each scene. Allison Anders did a beautiful job finding the angles of truth in her episode Sideways, and Chulack did the same here.

Interestingly, SouthLAnd has always been deliberately sparse musically — aside from the pilot and one or two episodes after that in season one, it never used soundtrack music. That changed with Coker’s Punching Water episode earlier this season, which featured a montage to music. And with Fixing A Hole, Coker brings music to the streets again, introducing the great, booming blues song “Something On Your Mind” by Big Jay McNeely (I think this is the right version), first within a scene (as Sammy shows up to get his suspect), but then over the final shot of Sammy coming to grips with all kinds of realizations about himself, and his complex relationship with Nate’s widow. In many ways, SouthLAnd is the raw, painful ballad of Los Angeles, and Coker is one of the show’s finest players.