“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.  

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.