Why TNT should give SouthLAnd a season 4

Readers of this blog will know how much I love SouthLAnd. A year or so ago, as TNT’s airing of the saved NBC season 2 episodes came to an end, I posted an article on why TNT needed to renew the show (here).

The time to call upon TNT to do the right thing has come around again.

TNT, you did an amazing thing rescuing the show from NBC and giving it a third season: please give SouthLAnd the season 4 it deserves, the season it has earned many times over through the extraordinary efforts and dedication of its entire cast and crew.

With Season 3 so far, SouthLAnd has exceeded what even its most loyal fans could have expected. Eight episodes into its ten episode arc, the show has handled with impossible ease its complex storylines, emotionally devastating arcs, biting humor, and desperate tragedy. All these elements are blended together in a light-on-its-feet but brutal style, shot with versatile RED One cameras and the incredible eye of DP Jimmy Muro, who has shown us a new Los Angeles, a city of bright glare, unforgiving streets, and the darkest shadows.

SouthLAnd is one of the WB’s finest ever shows, and this is due to the deep roll-call of high-caliber talent used in every aspect of the show. Creator Ann Biderman and showrunners John Wells and Chris Chulack (also a primary director) have done a fine job in selecting their creative line-up. There’s the extraordinary writing team of Jonathan Lisco, Cheo Hodari Coker, Will Rokos and Heather Zulhke. The brilliant regular directors Nelson McCormick, Felix Alcala, along with guest director Allison Anders, who did such a beautiful job with her episode “Sideways,” all of them ably assisted by the aforementioned Director of Photography Jimmy Muro, who himself directed Cheo Coker’s excellently written “Cop Or Not” episode.

Simply put, SouthLAnd has one of the greatest crews in television. And then there is the cast.

Initially, the show was understandably promoted around Ben McKenzie, fresh off his acclaimed role as troubled teen Ryan Atwood in The O.C. This was no disrespect to the other actors in the show, merely a useful way in the harsh economic reality of prime time TV to capitalize on McKenzie’s high profile. But as great an actor as McKenzie is (just watch his final scene in “Discretion”), this is an ensemble cast in the greatest sense of the word. In fact, as time has gone by, it has become clear that the entire roster of actors on the show are essentially the Yankees of one hour drama. Although TNT featured McKenzie in some of the season 3 promos with The O.C.‘s effective house band Death Cab For Cutie on the soundtrack, they have focused recent promos on the others in the show, primarily Michael Cudlitz, Regina King and Shawn Hatosy.

These three have torn apart the scenery this season, in the best possible way. While the sustained intensity of Hatosy’s raw, heartbreaking performance leads the pack in terms of likely Emmy or Golden Globe recognition, the incredible Regina King has proved herself to be the beating heart and powerful soul of the show, and Cudlitz has carved out one of the most iconic, complex and indelible cops in TV history.

With the budgetary restrictions of the move from NBC to TNT, SouthLAnd necessarily had to focus in on that smaller core cast. However, if you watch the show, you will see that every single person who shows up on screen has authenticity and compelling believability. It’s one of the show’s trademarks. It’s gritty and it’s real, and every moment counts.

The show’s more supporting roles are beautifully played (although every moment of this show plays like the A-story, and every player is treated like a lead actor). Michael McGrady delivers gravitas with routine ease as Hatosy’s boss. C. Thomas Howell is by turns hilarious and jaw-droppingly insane as perpetually troubled patrol officer Dewey. His beleaguered partner Chickie is played to perfection by Arija Bareikis. Jenny Gago has also been a great antagonist as Lydia’s new partner. There are many other fine actors and crew members, sadly too many to name here, but each and every one of them works incredibly hard to make this show as great as it is.

What all this translates to is a show that delivers devastating stories with absolute consistency week after week, while making you laugh, jump up from the edge of your seat, and, yes, cry. The cast and crew know exactly what they are doing: it’s no coincidence that the show’s most heartbreaking episode “Code 4,” the episode in which we lost the soulfully engaging Kevin Alejandro, was also its funniest. The blistering humor made the tragedy so much more difficult to handle. What we see with SouthLAnd is an extraordinary level of storytelling and directorial intelligence.

It’s rare to see this kind of perfect storm of network, cast, crew, locations and fans in television. We can only hope that TNT feels the same way, and gives SouthLAnd another full season with which to devastate and entertain us.

Call to arms: saving the Fringe universe

It’s time for a rallying cry to save one of the most inventive, emotionally rich, beautifully geeky and intensely genre-busting shows on TV right now: Fringe.

The show has risen mightily from its X-Files-esque beginnings, with an unorthodox FBI team working on strange phenomenon-based cases of the week. It has built a beautifully detailed, richly atmospheric and resonant architecture for itself as it heads towards the end of its third season. However, with Fox having moved Fringe to the “Firefly” slot on Fridays, and ratings slipping, the outlook for the Fringe-iverse may not be so positive: cracks may be appearing in the future of the show, just as reality is starting to fragment within the show itself.

The show has a core team of three, serving in the FBI’s “Fringe Division.” Special Agent Olivia Dunham (played by Anna Torv), the uptight, fiercely intelligent and emotionally unflinching leader. Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson), the man who was a boy from another universe and is now a troubled but fundamentally sincere and decent “special consultant.” He happens to be the son of the team’s resident genius, Walter Bishop (the legendary John Noble), a Harvard-based scientist who devised countless reality-defying experiments, spent 20 years in an asylum, and now struggles to connect his genius to the real world. These three, with the assistance of agent Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole), report to Phillip Broyles (Lance Reddick), the enigmatic senior agent with mysterious connections.

Fringe has grown in scale and ambition since those early days investigating unexplained and terrifying creatures and occurrences. Now, it deals with nothing less than the fate of our world, and that of the Other Side, the alternate version of our world, intimately tied to ours as the fabric of both begins to rupture and come apart. The details of that off-kilter alternate world are perfectly drawn, creating the same-but-different feel: for example, there is no such thing as coffee there, the Statue Of Liberty is cast in bronze, and airships float through the high-tech skies. With the conflict between the worlds played out like a war in the making, the show has built a powerful narrative momentum as the stakes are driven higher, and the emotional impact gets deeper, and more intense.

The show is geek heaven, with its critical recurring role for Leonard Nimoy as William Bell, Walter Bishop’s former partner (and founder of Massive Dynamic), and its immaculately chosen guest stars, including Back To The Future‘s Christopher Lloyd, and Robocop‘s Peter Weller. The stories themselves have become more resonant, more richly emotional — feelings play an intense and devastating role in this show. It’s not just abstract science that fuels the tales of the two universes, it’s deeply powerful stories that tear at you with their implications. They are primal human stories: a father losing a son in one world, and stealing his alternate version from another; a love triangle between a man, and the two identical women from each side, told in the most emotionally devastating and real way possible; experiments on children to develop and enhance special abilities, dealt with through the lens of the disturbed, haunted adults they become.

But it isn’t all about darkness and fear. Fringe is one of the funniest and wittiest one hour dramas currently on the air. It’s a true stablemate to other such intense yet bitingly funny shows produced by Warner Bros. Television, including True Blood, SouthLAnd and The Vampire Diaries. They all share deep and compelling traits: they approach emotion, drama and humor with equally savage and sustained enthusiasm and energy. They are all derived from the minds of some of TV’s finest showrunners: J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, Jeff Pinkner & Joel Wyman (Fringe), John Wells, Ann Biderman & Christopher Chulack (SouthLAnd), Kevin Williams and Julie Plec (The Vampire Diaries), and of course, Alan Ball (True Blood).

These shows share an emotional intensity, the furious whipping up of wild and hard-hitting narrative arcs, a beautiful awareness of genre and how to play with it, honor it, and transcend it. They all build worlds real and imagined, and they all push the boundaries of their creations.

Now one of them is in trouble. Maybe two, but SouthLAnd is discussed in other posts on this blog. This post is for Fringe. Because quality storytelling is important. Writing of this caliber must be supported. Great acting needs to be cherished. With its ability to filter emotional stories through “strange science”, alternate universes, and complex relationships, by playing with the tropes of TV sci-fi, Fringe is truly unique in its genre, and in the world of TV drama. It has a powerful engine driving its ideas, and its cast and crew is populated with artists and visionaries, beautifully executing the ideas in a manner that is always highly entertaining, intense, gory sometimes, emotionally powerful all the time.

John Noble, Anna Torv and Pacey himself, Joshua Jackson, do a tremendous job as the heart and soul of the show. They portray heartbreaking, hilarious, darkly complex characters: they have the richness of Shakespearean creations, filtered through the fast-moving, wisecracking lens of 21st century TV. Noble, Torv and Jackson are an essential, compelling team, with truly fantastic chemistry and comic timing, and dramatic, heartbreaking depth.

As they fight to save our world and the alternate world that threatens it, so the fans of Fringe must also mobilize to save the universes. Without regular live viewings, the show will slip through the cracks in the TV drama universe and disappear forever. Watch it, and it will endure.

Occasionally those passions explode: Southland, Punching Water

“Start with the truth.”

So screamed Shawn Hatosy ‘s Sammy Bryant, handily summing up the show’s mantra in the opening scenes of this week’s Southland, the thrilling, brutal, blistering and frequently hilarious second episode of the show’s new season. Phenomenally written by Cheo Hodari Coker, and directed by Christopher Chulack with an even surer eye for movement, detail, light and Los Angeles locations than usual, Punching Water was the series’ high point to date, eclipsing past career best eps like Phase Three and What Makes Sammy Run?, raising the bar even higher for the show, and for TV drama.

What made this episode special was the heightening of the show’s fundamental elements, and the way they were combined with such sure control. Every element was punched up: the tight narrative style, the dry humor, the raw treatment of violence, and making small moments count for everything. Impressively, considering the budgetary restraints faced by the show this season, the episode not only featured all of the main cast (Lydia, Nate, Sammy, Sal, Cooper, Sherman, Chickie and Dewey), but even managed to bring all of them together in one superbly written, acted and shot, highly charged scene that also delivered one of the series’ greatest moments to date: the sight of Lydia slapping down Dewey. This was the flash forward that opened the episode, with the accompanying voiceover describing what happens when you bring together a bunch of cops passionate about their jobs: “Occasionally those passions explode.”

Despite being driven by a brutal sequence of multiple retaliatory murders across the MLK weekend, this episode also managed to be the funniest in the show’s history. There were many comic moments: Nate and Sammy’s back and forth (“playa, playa”), the other cops’ jibes about Sherman’s new lady friend, or, my personal favorite, Cooper screaming off in the patrol car with Sherman, leaving Dewey behind with a none-too-thrilled Chickie. Throughout, Punching Water ducked and dived with the confidence and sure step of a pro, like Ali, knowing when to hit you hard, and when to dance around.

The theme that drives Southland is what it means to be a cop, and Punching Water advanced this further, with awesome levels of gravitas courtesy of Michael McGrady, in a welcome return to the show as Detective “Sal” Salinger. He rallied the troops to get out to the streets to find the killer of a four year old, the latest victim in the wave of murders. Coker wrote a great speech, and McGrady completely nailed it. In doing so, he anchored the scene, the episode, and likely the season as well. He also initiated a first for the show: a montage sequence, which also marked the first time (more or less) the show has used a soundtrack since it ended the pilot episode Unknown Trouble with The National’s Fake Empire (which I talked about here). It was a departure, but it worked perfectly.

Although everyone in the cast did classy work in this episode, it was McGrady that landed the killer punch.

And that’s what the show ended with: a devastating emotional killer punch that concluded the show’s underlying theme this week, as summed up by Sherman: “love’s a bitch.” Love or lack of it was the catalyst of everything that happened in the episode, and the final scene was the perfect example of how this show can devastate you in seconds. Like a high performance car, this thing can shift gears seamlessly and quietly. You don’t even know it’s happening until it’s too late, the tears rolling down your face. This episode was a full court press throughout, saving its best shot for last.

Damn, this show is good.

The return of Southland: 3.1 “Let It Snow”

The highly anticipated Season Three of Southland began on TNT with “Let It Snow,” an episode that continued the series’ signature high-impact simplicity with an elegantly propulsive momentum.

The writers (executive producer John Wells, and the creator of the show, Ann Biderman) had a complex task on their hands with this one: keeping the show running at full throttle on a newly reduced off-network budget, while making the episode fully accessible to newer viewers, essential for the show’s continued survival.

Southland has traditionally never made many concessions to the viewer in the way it tells its stories, which has always been one of its strengths as a drama. Its world is detailed and real, and we need to catch up and keep up, just like the patrol cops and detectives in the complex situations they encounter. Wells and Biderman negotiated the complex demands of this season opener skilfully; sketching with the lightest of touches enough details of the key players’ back stories to allow new viewers to know them, while accelerating them into new challenges. There were delicate echoes of the pilot “Unknown Trouble,” and also of the last episode aired, “Maximum Deployment,” but these echoes were artfully reframed, with quiet evolutions shaded in.

Southland has always been a minimally presented, high impact drama, but this latest episode brutally honed that style even closer to the bone. Each scene was a brutal street haiku, containing just a few, perfectly chosen details that illuminated whole worlds, telling us almost nothing but showing us everything. “Let It Snow” was a masterclass in starting scenes late and ending them fast. The actors had never had long to make their impact, and they took advantage of every precious second. Michael Cudlitz was the MVP of this episode as John Cooper, fighting his excruciating, debilitating back injuries, and desperately begging for the help of his ex-wife to sustain his painkiller addiction. His tragic, haunting expression as she rushed away from him in tears was the key moment of the episode, locating the show’s heart amidst the chaos and tension. Ben McKenzie also did great work executing the path the writers seem to be laying out for his role, as Ben Sherman drifts from the hotshot, by-the-numbers rookie, to a more experienced, weary, rule-breaking patrol cop. Regina King hit her emotional beats compellingly as Lydia Adams, perpetually dealing with the horror that her detective faces, and never quite getting numb to it.

All in all, it was a fascinating start to season three, with director Christopher Chulack combining great character work with tough, almost unbearably tense set pieces and raw street-level action. It promised much for the nine episodes to come. It’s great to have this show back, and on the leading edge, where it’s always been; where it truly belongs.