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.

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SouthLAnd “Fallout”

SouthLAnd continued its peerless run of emotionally intense episodes with Fallout, dealing with the visceral disintegration of key relationships on the show. It could equally well have been called Things Falling Apart, because it was brutal like the Nine Inch Nails remix album, and in some ways the show is remixing itself, foregrounding its more emotionally violent elements. SouthLAnd has always  challenged its characters by pushing them beyond their limits and confronting their personal hells. In this episode, it did so in even more unflinching ways.

Certainties crumbled and trust imploded as the foundation-shaking earthquake of Etan Frankel’s script met Allison Anders’ up close and personal direction; and the actors served up raw, phsyical, wounded performances, finding a way to peel back yet another layer of emotional skin and reveal their hearts and souls.

Frankel, a former playwright and Friday Nights Lights writer, who also writes for John Wells’ other brilliant show Shameless, wrote a perfectly spare and forceful script. It laid out the cases with the minimum of fuss, and gave the actors an actors dream of gut-punching, soul-wrenching, no-going-back-from-that dialogue.

The visceral script was coupled with Allison Anders’ inspired directing style, which is all about making everything richer: the framing, the light, and the performances. She brought the camera in close to the actors’ faces, giving the actors more physicality than usual, bringing us closer to their pain, their seething rage, their exploding passions. Now, SouthLAnd is a show that is all about motion and kineticism, but Anders showed us that this isn’t always about the camera chasing after Sherman or Bryant. Here, Anders made the bold choice (in the context of this show) to frequently hold the camera still, very still, and let the actors play out their discomfort. It’s like Anders has her own zen martial art directing style: the kinetic scenes were brutal; but the stillness hit even harder.

The performances hurt, even more than usual. Frankel’s venomous script gave Ben McKenzie and Shawn Hatosy some painful, knife-twisting scenes. You truly felt Sherman’s growing frustration as he tried to make things up to Bryant after accusing him of being a dirty cop and facing Bryant’s almost showboating refusal to back down. But when Sherman dropped the Nate-bomb on Bryant, and told him that was the last apology he was getting… well damn son. That was extraordinarily awkward, deeply painful, and emotionally complicated drama, conveyed in true minimalist SouthLAnd style with a couple of perfectly written lines, some close-up camerwork, and unbearable intensity from both actors.

Even more intense were the scenes between Michael Cudlitz and Lucy Liu. Tang was having a very bad day, which got worse when she shot an unarmed suspect, and then tampered with the crime scene as Cooper showed up. Cooper may be flawed, damaged, full of demons, but he’s a damn good cop, and with exemplary cop’s instincts, he knew that Tang had been doing something she shouldn’t, something she didn’t even need to do. Lucy Liu did a tremendous job unraveling Tang’s tightly wired demeanor, and Cudlitz was fantastic as he wrestled with the no-win moral situation she had put him in, and then unleashed his fury on her after they’d both been questioned. Liu got a great coda, in which we saw her guilt and frustration blow up. And Cudlitz took every single viewer to the edge by making us utterly believe that he was about to start using again, when in fact he was meeting his sponsor for help.

Dorian Missick and Regina King had some soulful and compelling scenes, as Lydia still refused to admit her “condition”, even as Ruben showed his genuine, caring and supportive side. Frankel gave them some beautiful lines, Anders shot it in lovely fashion, and the actors were fantastic.

As everything falls apart, the show heads into its final three episodes of the season, beginning with episode eight, God’s Work, which features a Cheo Coker script directed by Guy Norman Bee. It promises to be an extraordinary continuation of the dark arcs that the show is playing out.

SouthLAnd “Community”: slow burn to inferno

One of the things that makes SouthLAnd so great is its evolving textures; the writers have their own styles within the framework of the show, as do the directors. This diverse community around the central heart of SouthLAnd makes for a show that always feels fresh, on the edge, unfolding in ways we can never predict. Much like life in L.A. Much like a typical day in the lives of our cops.

Scripted by Jason Horwitch, Community was lacerating in its compressed complexity, its compacted violence. Each scene was a one inch punch that rocked out of nowhere, on the count of one, not three, with Felix Alcala bringing a brawling, aggressive directing style to the episode, getting up in everyone’s face.

We all need to take a moment here to recognize the absolute genius of Alcala’s brilliant shot-framing. All the show’s directors are great, but Alcala went hard at this episode, making it raw and beautiful in savage ways. His camera prowled the over-saturated Los Angeles streets and skyline, framing the actors and their backgrounds with an unerring eye on the motion and composition of the shot.

The camera (and the show) was set to slow-burn throughout, until the final inferno with its magnificent, alien, sci-fi Jimmy Muro lens flares and complex visual textures. It was as breathtaking as the emotional turbulence of the scene itself. It brought to mind the devastating emotions and hypnotic lighting of the conclusion to last season’s Code 4, which Alcala also directed.

And then there was the acting. Man, the acting.

The day players in this episode were f**king amazing. Every single one brought a vivid, intense and painfully raw performance that fit the show perfectly. This was a Community full of extraordinary talent. It’s a credit to the skill and dedication of the casting team on SouthLAnd that every single person on the screen leaps off it with their performance. There was something special in this episode with those day players; maybe it was the script, or the directing, but this felt like TV drama in true 3D.

The core cast, of course, nailed it. They always do, but it should never go without saying; it takes a tremendous amount of talent and hard work to maintain that level of excellence. Ben McKenzie proved that if the actor is engaging and that much of a natural star, the writers can make the character that much more of a dick without ever losing the viewers; much like David Duchovny in Californication, McKenzie’s easy charm brings the viewers back in even as his character continutes his steady descent into darkness. Special credit this week goes to Lucy Liu for her utterly perfect, low-key, lived-in naturalism. She’s integrated seamlessly into the show thanks to the truth she brings.

But MVP this episode was Regina King. Although Dorian Missick gave her a run for her money with his eloquently poetic performance as the father nervously rehearsing his daughter’s quinceanera speech, King’s near-silent performance at the end of their final scene in the episode was beautiful and moving. Especially in the light of the promo for next week, her reactions during and after Missick’s final lines were staggeringly, subtly great. It’s like there’s nothing, no human truth, King can’t convey with her eyes. She tells the truth so profoundly without even speaking. It was pure poetry as she listened to Missick, then pulled out her phone when he left the car, and made her call.

That’s what this show is all about: praise of the extraordinary. The extraordinary work that cops and detectives do every single day on the streets of Los Angeles, and the extraordinary work everyone in the cast and crew of this show brings to it week after week.

“Underwater”: SouthLAnd ain’t nuthin’ to f**k with

Cops routinely find themselves underwater… the undertow can be tricky.

“Underwater” was a powerhouse episode, full of beautiful interplay and texture, subtle dynamics, kick-ass set-pieces, and the constant, neverending threat of unknown trouble. Cheo Coker’s script floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee, with Coker riffing brilliantly on our beloved characters, firing off killer line after killer line like rounds from a Glock, nailing pop culture references, and diving into the complex motivations of why cops become cops, why cops stay cops, and how cops become the cops they’re meant to be, for better or for worse.

It was a classic script, full of scenes, lines and beats that punched their way off the screen. Whether it was Bryant calling Sherman “Captain save-a-ho”, or the running gag about the Mickey D’s application form, or Dewey’s glorious insanity, this was a script that ducked and dived, threw jabs, one-twos and combinations, and didn’t stop running until the FADE OUT. There were too many references and quotable moments to list here – I’d just be writing out the entire script if I mentioned everything that was awesome – but Coker blended pop culture (Rambo, The Walking Dead) with right-on-target real situations (Randy Simmons inspiring kids to be cops). If you had to pick the greatest single moment – and you could argue like 50 of them – for me it was Jessica Tang’s new nickname. As Cooper said it, “they call you Wu-Tang now… cuz you ain’t nothin to f**k with.”

We also heard the show’s statement of intent early on the in the episode: “we’re here to protect and serve… and kick ass.”

But this wasn’t just a funny episode, or a clever one; it went much further, much deeper. What this show does better than any other is push its characters way over the edge, challenging who they think they are, obliterating their belief systems, and testing their capabilities to the limit. This is what great drama consists of, and it’s a credit to John Wells and the entire SouthLAnd team that this takes place so naturalistically, so seamlessly. The actors rose to the challenge of Coker’s great character work, bringing to life the texture and dynamics on the page. Shawn Hatosy somehow gets more intense with every episode, channeling Brando, Penn, De Niro, but wearing it lightly, easily. Ben McKenzie is handling Sherman’s trajectory into a darker place with great skill and grace, playing his complexities perfectly and compellingly. Michael Cudlitz is the anchor, the rock; whether he’s delivering a beatdown or a wry grin, he brings the gravitas and the humor. Tommy Howell just kills it, every time, taking the messed-up twisted sickness that the writers throw at him and making it utterly engaging even as your jaw drops. Lucy Liu is a steely force to be reckoned with, and her chemistry with Cudlitz is perfect; she’s a truly integral part of the cast thanks to her subtle, minimalist approach. And you have to love Dorian Missick and Regina King. She’s as soulful and forceful as ever, telling the truth with her performance like an absolute virtuoso, while he plays out the questioning, troubled role of Ruben with great presence, hitting hard with a quiet power; they’re a great team.

And while Coker handled the words, and the actors brought them to life, everything was beautifully lit and framed by DP Jimmy Muro and director Nelson McCormick. SouthLAnd has always been a show about textures, specifically the textures of character and light. This was a stunning episode from that perspective, using Los Angeles to incredible effect, whether in street-level chases, or the massive Downtown skyline looming behind the patrol cops as they took a break. The scene where our four patrol cops kept watch on suspects on a street corner was masterfully shot, moving from the show’s signature saturated light to stark, silhouetted cars and officers, and back again.

This is a show that is made great by the dedication and commitment of every single person involved in its creation; it couldn’t be the greatest cop show of all time if that wasn’t the case. That care, that love, is present and evident in every moment on the screen.

Greatness is encoded into this show’s DNA. Whether it’s two detectives questioning the morality of their methods, four patrol officers remembering why they joined the force, or the shocking, visceral moments like the man on fire, this show is unbeatable, unstoppable, and unmissable.