SouthLAnd “Off-Duty”: How to be awesome

As regular viewers (and if you’re not, start now), you all know that SouthLAnd sets an extraordinarily high bar with every episode.

Sammy Bryant on the move, SouthLAnd style

Sammy Bryant on the move, SouthLAnd style

No other show is constructed and executed as tightly, precisely and brutally as this one. The scripts are taut, ferocious, bulletproof. The whole scriptwriting tenet of “get into the scene as late as possible and get out as soon as you can” is taken to a whole other level by the SouthLAnd writers’ room. They elevate that beyond being an artform; it’s writing like a martial art, where the slightest movement can result in you being slammed to the ground emotionally, winded, breathless. You can find yourself feeling sad without even knowing why, because they just pulled some of that ninja shit on you.

Point being, when I say that Zack Whedon’s script raised the bar again, I’m really saying something. It’s not easy for a new writer to the room to do that. It’s a testament to SouthLAnd‘s writer selection process that Whedon is the second scribe this season (after Aron Rahsaan Thomas) to ace their debut script.

Sure, he comes from Hollywood writing royalty. A veritable dynasty, if you will. You all know about his brother Joss (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Avengers to name just a few), their father, their grandfather. Another of the brothers, Jed, has been working with Joss for years, and has a major production role in the new S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot (which ABC needs to order to series like, now). Of course, that doesn’t guarantee that Zack would be able to knock it out the park; but the fact that he did, spectacularly so, isn’t entirely surprising.

One area which the show hasn’t quite been hitting the target this season has been the opening few minutes leading into the freeze/photo flash voiceover. They’ve lacked a certain oomph in season five, for the most part, compared to previous seasons. Zack changed all that, giving us just a brief glimpse of an off duty Sammy creeping up on an unseen perp screaming and firing a handgun at civilians. Staying off-duty is “easier said than done,” said the voiceover, followed by the customary title letting us know how many hours earlier the episode was jumping back. It’s usually in the double figures, 15, say, or 17; this episode was tight, and just took us back 5 hours. That immediately upped the pressure and the stakes, and in fact we reached Sammy’s off duty shooter moment in the middle of Act One.

Easier said than done

Easier said than done

This script meant business.

Sammy’s takedown of a huge, topless guy shooting at cars and taking a hostage set up a nice contrast to Sherman’s “poster boy” arc; “Come on,” Sherman tells Bryant shortly afterwards, “don’t tell me you didn’t love every minute playing bad-ass for those cameras.” Hatosy’s answering smile was pure gold; hell yeah he liked it. It was a nice character moment for these two, whose relationship has often been spiky and fraught. The continuing saga of Tammy’s assault charges against Sammy further bolstered the Sherman/Hatosy friendship, with Sherman unequivocally letting Bryant know he’s got his back.

Sherman’s relationship with Cooper was decidedly more frosty.

You can never go back

You can never go back

Only the writers know why, but the decision has been made to keep these two as icy and fractured as possible. It’s rough, given the emotional history that they have; the show was born from their TO/new boot relationship, and one of its biggest emotional payoffs was Sherman saving Cooper’s life by getting him to rehab. Since then, in two seasons, their only contact has been an awkward nod partway through season four, and the excruciating and heartbreaking conversation in this episode, which started awkwardly, ended abruptly, and played out with Sherman and Cooper at opposite ends of the bar, ignoring each other for the rest of the night (until Sherman got his booty call). It’s good drama, but it’s f**king annoying too. There’s surely a lot of mileage to had be had from playing the two of them off each other in a more sustained way as Sherman develops his true cop style while Cooper winds his down. Still, SouthLAnd thrives on moving forward relentlessly, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s sad that their bond is broken, but that’s the world of the show; things get broken, and you move on.

Whedon’s script played all of this to perfection though, along with Cooper’s increasing conflict at the prospect of possibly leaving the force, and in contrast to his short friendship with Ben, his deep, everlasting history and friendship with Dewey. Whedon did a great job with all their scenes, and gave Dewey all the best lines — Tommy Howell nailed every last one of of them in what was a bravura episode for him.

Cooper wasn’t the only one that Sherman wasn’t showing the love to. That booty call he followed up on wasn’t from Brooke, who he called his girlfriend for the first time at the start of the episode; it was from a girl he met on patrol.

Sherman's "oh shit I just called her my girlfriend" face

Sherman’s “oh shit I just called her my girlfriend” face

So giving a girl your card so she can call if she needs to is definitely #1 in the Sherman playbook. I hope they play this out; Annie Monroe, formerly of the pop-punk LA girl band The Like, has been a great addition to the cast, always making the most of her brief screen time with naturalistic charm and enviable snark.

But you know we have to talk about Regina.

Off-Duty was directed by the incredible Regina King, her first time behind the camera on SouthLAnd. And it wasn’t like they gave her an easy one to help her out of the gate. No way. This was a brutal script to shoot: multiple tense and complicated action sequences, so many high stakes and key to the series emotional and character scenes, and some really huge moments for Lydia to act. King was a phenomenal director.

With formidable DP extraordinaire Dana Gonzales at her side, she gave us one of the most kinetic, emotional and visceral episodes to date. The action sequences had a hyper-vivid quality, the locations perfectly backdropped the emotional arcs; the whole thing was as emotional as her performances usually are, and in the same way — subtle but devastating.

All in all, this was one of SouthLAnd‘s strongest ever episodes, a great debut on the show for Whedon as writer and King as director. Their pairing produced TV gold. This show knows exactly how to move fast and stay alive. It’s thrilling.

 

Random Witness Statements:

  • “Amazing to think that for every one of those people there’s a pair of disappointed parents…”
  • Sherman is fan of the arts, apparently
  • The subtle handling of Sherman tipping off vice about his former weed dealer
  • King’s acting opposite the serial killer on death row
  • EVERY SINGLE SCENE WITH DEWEY
  • Cooper loves his cactus garden like Dewey loves kale
  • This really was a brilliantly constructed episode by Whedon
  • “Guy’s a monster, and now he’s going to reap the whirlwind”

 

How to be awesome (look closely, you'll see it)

How to be awesome

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SouthLAnd “Under The Big Top” — the greatest show on Earth

SouthLAnd‘s fifth season is shaping up to be its most ruthless and pared down yet, and therefore its most emotionally thrilling.

Everything changes

Everything changes

Under The Big Top was a Sara Gran script, with her distinctive brand of humor and sharp, on the spot character moments. Behind the camera, Felix Alcala brought his aggressive, restless visual style, aided by Dana Gonzales’ impeccable lighting. They made Los Angeles look visceral and amazing, in a clear-eyed, haze-free way this time. This is a show that can occupy different places on its unique viusual spectrum — this episode was all about the middle of the day/late afternoon clarity of the city. It was a particularly great episode for locations that added new dimensions to the scenes, something SouthLAnd excels at. The scene where Cooper and Lucero find a murder suspect and his girl, shot on the other side of the 101 from the Capitol Records building, with the downtown skyscrapers behind them: the light, the traffic, the architecture — it was a passing moment in the script (and a great character moment between Cooper and Lucero), given a kinetic depth by the shooting, framing and editing. This show carves its truths out of the LA landscape with ease.

Incredible shot from Alcala and Gonzales

Incredible shot from Alcala and Gonzales: the detail, the depth of field, the scope and focus of it…

It was a Cooper-centric episode, appropriately, given the title, and his tendency to see the job as one big circus. He had happy moments, tender moments, lonely moments, self-reflective moments, courtesy of Gran’s lovely and understated script. It was a great emotional episode for Cudlitz, who just crushed it in every scene with so much nuance and gravitas and soul. My personal favorite Cooper moment? “Maybe the right one stays.”

On the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, Sherman was still busy shedding his humanity and switching off his ability to care about anyone he deals with on the job (unless that person is Annie Monroe playing a teacher with a pleasing amount of snark, holding her own in every scene).

Relationships, SouthLAnd style: McKenzie and Monroe. Banter not pictured.

Relationships, SouthLAnd style: McKenzie and Monroe. Banter not pictured.

Ben McKenzie is doing truly fantastic work this season, with his almost terrifying transformation from the new boot who couldn’t stop caring, to the hulking, experienced officer who beats the shit out of a perp on a subway train in front of horrified passengers (to be fair, the guy was trying to kick Sherman’s ass, so Sherman knocking him out wasn’t entirely uncalled for). That scene was pure SouthLAnd — rationality and order descend almost instantaneously into utterly visceral violence and chaos. The stunt team are legends, and the entire cast and crew always make these scenes look horribly, breathlessly real. The way McKenzie just sat down in a nearby seat after cuffing the now unconscious criminal, waiting for the next stop, without saying anything to the other passengers, spoke volumes (Seth Cohen was right, he can say SO MUCH without even speaking)(Sorry for the OC reference, but Cohen nailed it — McKenzie is getting Brando-like in his intensity and wordless stares, hollowed out like he’s at the end of Apocalypse Now).

Changing relationships

Changing relationships

So powerful is McKenzie’s performance, he’s actually out-prowling Hatosy in a lot of scenes, which is just what the scripts are calling for. Where once Sammy would have been the hero for caring about a young boy who’s a victim of the system (remember What Makes Sammy Run? A Coker script and one of the greatest episodes of the show), now he is outshined by the sheer magnitude of Sherman’s ruthlessness. Sammy almost seems out of touch in this new, more aggressive world, which is the world of season five (set in motion by the darkness at the end of season four).

The unforgiving glare of harsh truths

The unforgiving glare of harsh truths

The show evolves with each season, and it’s much rawer and more streamlined than ever.

It’s the one inch punch of TV drama.

Random Witness Statements:

  •  The guest stars are extraordinary. Every time.
  • “Maybe you should get a carpet.”
  • Alcala added to the show’s visual texture with his helicopter shots
  • “You got a dirty, dirty mind.”
  • The woman picking up the money in front of Sherman after the train fight — the perfect coda to the scene
  • “For such a genius, you’re awfully handcuffed.”

SouthLAnd: Taking the Heat

The greatest SouthLAnd writers have distinctive styles and voices.

This week’s writer, Heather Zuhlke, excels at texture; the connective tissue between characters, between scenes, between themes. She can give you all you need to know about a person, a relationship, a situation, with just a few careful words and moments.

That skill with texture was key to Heat, as this episode was all about interactions; the webs that link one person to another, and how those bonds hold up when the heat, the pressure, is cranked all the way up. Those brief, fragmentary moments were even more important than usual in a show that thrives on an aggressively existential insistence on the importance of the present moment, and the irrelevance of the past and the future.

Whether it was Cooper and the girl who brought him muffins, or Cooper and Steele, or Cooper and the veteran, or Sherman, continuing his alienating trend of being a total dick to everyone except the people who would actually deserve it, or Bryant, desperate to connect with his own son, and instead connecting with the dying son of a gangster via a toy Lego cop — each situation was short, brutal, and revelatory, thanks to Zuhlke’s absolute mastery of character through action. It sounds obvious, since that is the goal of TV drama (of all drama, all writing) — but it’s not. It’s hard to get right even some of the time — Zuhlke nailed every single beat from start to finish.

The acting in this episode was exemplary. As you can tell from the list above, Cudlitz had a lot to do, and he did it brilliantly. Ben McKenzie is fearless this season, utterly willing to throw off Sherman’s idealistic former self in favor of his transition to a hardened, jaded douchebag. Hatosy is great as always, keeping Bryant’s combustibility in check, but only just. He effortlessly conveys the fact that Bryant has much more experience, and is likely a much better cop, than Sherman.

I haven’t mentioned Regina King yet, because she deserves special focus for this episode, which was really all about Lydia’s much welcome return to being an awesomely powerful powerhouse of a woman. From the opening flashback when we see her start to kick the ass of a kickboxer in a street brawl, to her first shot doing insane pushups, through her beautifully depicted banter with Dorian Missick, King owned this episode. She’s a natural match for Zuhlke’s style, able to convey extraordinary amounts of emotional information with the barest of words or gestures. Her joy at her comeback made the ending all the more devastating.

A quick word about that. SouthLAnd excels at dropping you into unknown trouble and making you feel it, instantaneously — the moment contains all you need to know for it to f**k you up emotionally. Earlier in the episode, the show made a rare minor misstep with Mendoza’s story. It could have been the character being too new and unfamiliar, it could have been that we don’t connect with Sherman’s loyalty to him, or it could just be the precise sleaziness of the performance. Whatever the reason, there were only two moments in the arc that truly worked: Sammy gaving the Lego cop to the dying kid (at which point it started raining on my face for some reason), and the very end of the arc, when Sherman is left alone in the hospital corridor — utter isolation that definitely hit home. Those moments aside, that story just didn’t have the emotional power to jump start our feelings.

The same cannot be said for the ending, which was horribly savage in the quietest of ways. Classic SouthLAnd. We didn’t even know what was truly happening. We didn’t need to. Regina King’s heartbreak was backed up by everything that had happened to her earlier arriving in that scene like an emotional freight train — that’s brilliant writing. The moment was flawlessly conveyed, and the previous 40 minutes slammed into you while you were down. King is an extraordinary actress, and why she doesn’t have a truckload of Emmys at this point is beyond me.

The texture that was key to this week’s script was also there in Dana Gonzales’s lighting. While Jimmy Muro is the undisputed master of capturing that Los Angeles light, Gonzales has been quietly excelling in a number of SouthLAnd episodes (most notably, God’s Work). He can harness extraordinary early morning golden hazes (he shot the golf course like an alien planet shrouded in sentient light), and he can wrestle lens flares out of literally any shot — the patrol officer’s badge when Lydia and Ruben walked up the hill to their first case, or the patrol car lights on a cloudy day after Cooper was shot at. Gonzales is a legendary DP.

Heat continued the season five trend of being tighter, more compact. Sometimes, that constricted the emotional responses a little; mostly, it accentuated them. It’s simply the rawest, most real show on TV right now. Challenging, uncompromising, and brilliant.

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.