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.”
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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.

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.

Southland will break your heart (spoiler)

It was almost too much. Maybe it was too much. Code 4 came to an exhausting, traumatic end with the simplest of shots but the most raw, devastating moment in the show’s history. It was an absolute emotional savaging for the viewer.

Written by Will Rokos, directed by Felix Alcala, this was the tightest episode of Southland to date. It had everything you would want from an hour of TV drama: the humor was rawer, more visceral; the emotional reversals came hard and fast; the highs were higher, the lows were worse. And that was before the end, when we watched Shawn Hatosy and Yara Martinez come apart in each other’s arms. Just a held shot of the two of them, gasping for air, struggling to breathe with the absolute fact of what had just happened. The death of a partner, friend and husband. Grief is handled in many different ways in television shows. I’m not sure I’ve seen it handled like this, in its most unfiltered form. It was awful to watch, and I mean that as the highest possible compliment.

Hatosy in particular was astonishing, delivering an aggressively compelling and forceful performance throughout, culminating in his flawless portrayal of Bryant’s emotional disintegration.

The way Code 4 was directed by Feliz Alcala was almost ethereal in its quiet intensity. The opening flash forward was haunting, just Sammy shaking, lens flare, a barely moving camera, and then the scream. By the time we reached that moment for real, the knowledge of what it meant was almost unbearable, and when the moment continued, even though we desperately didn’t want it to, it was emotionally horrific. Alcala stayed close to the truth throughout, and we felt it. One key example: as the helicopter flashed the spotlight on Nate, moments before the end, he held up four fingers, signaling “code 4,” no further assistance necessary. Such a simple moment, made brutal by what followed. Southland excels at such simplicity and poetically retroactive impact.

Will Rokos wrote a tough, unflinching script, finding time amongst the darkness for the funniest moments we’ve seen in this show, which of course made the ending much harder to handle. The writers have done an amazing job this season, and have consistently pulled off an extremely difficult trick: not only have they kept the show subtly serialized and moving forward, but each episode is perfectly constructed as an entry point into the Southland world. That means new viewers could join at any point and be able to jump right in. The writers have encoded each episode this season with enough information to key the new viewer in to the relationships, but they’ve integrated it so carefully that it doesn’t interfere with the flow of the show for regular viewers. It’s a clever move on the part of the producers, and it’s working. Ratings are up, and Code 4 (and the wonderfully loyal fans) prompted Southland to trend for the first time on Twitter. It seems very hopeful that this means good things for the show’s survival and renewal by TNT.

But Kevin Alejandro will be sorely missed. Southland‘s loss is True Blood‘s gain. Alejandro was such a great part of the fabric of Southland, and did tremendous work. Kudos to him for making Nate Moretta such a compelling, soulful, and popular character.