SouthLAnd “Heroes”: What did Cooper say?

This was a BRUISING episode of the show. It took your emotions and kicked the shit out of them with a cold, quiet ruthlessness; it made you lean in, then slammed your head into the emotional walls it built up through the hour. Thanks for that, Heather Zuhlke!

Zuhlke wrote some of the most brutal and devastating lines I’ve ever heard on this show (or on any show), and they were all reserved for Michael Cudlitz’s scenes.

Cooper is having the WORST season. I mean, his life is barreling down into an emotional abyss that I’m not sure anyone could claw their way out of. This episode marked a new low point for him, as both his father, and his father figure, treated him in terrible and appalling ways. He’s having a bad year, you guys. He’s questioning everything about everything and not finding good answers. So when he digs DEEP and somehow, utterly heroically, dredges up the willingness to see his father (who raped and murdered Cooper’s girlfriend by the way) on his deathbed, and gets told by his old man, “I had to give her what you couldn’t… I’d rather see you dead than have a fa***t for a son,” you felt the bludgeoning cruelty of it, the jaw-dropping, stunning horror of what that must feel like to Cooper. Like an eighteen wheeler hidden in a whisper.

Cooper facing his demons

Cooper facing his demons

It was an extraordinarily written scene, but Cudlitz elevated it to a new, monumental level of quiet tragedy in his stoic, craggy reactions. Incredible acting there, but he wasn’t done yet. He still had to face the other father figure in his life. his former T.O., who is now falling to pieces.

Cooper’s final stop on his daily tour of emotional hell was to receive some more abuse from Gerald McRaney, who has been outstanding in his arc as the guy who taught Cooper everything he knows. McRaney has given a phenomenal series of performances that reached new heights in this episode, first with his drunken, bitter rage and physical abuse of Cooper, and much more so at the end, when he described the terrible loneliness of his existence, the meaningless of it all that was overwhelming him. “I don’t know how I got here” was a heartbreaking line, heartbreakingly delivered by McRaney, who turned this final few minutes into something raw and mesmerizing; it was Shakespearean in its quiet majesty. Jimmy Muro knew exactly how to direct this final scene: point the camera at McRaney, keep Cudlitz in shot, and let the acting masterclass from both of them just play out. In a lot of ways, this episode felt like a play, a classic two hander, thanks to the impact of that final conversation.

McRaney in full Shakespearean tragic mode; Cooper like a ghost in the background

McRaney in full Shakespearean tragic mode; Cooper like a ghost in the background

Not to neglect the rest of this fine episode, but, it all vanished in the wake of this final scene. Nothing could escape its gravity.

That said, there were some fine thematic elements resonating throughout the episode. Hatosy reading “Return Of The Caped Hero” to little Nate; Ruben’s daughter asking Lydia “question six”, which could basically be the subtitle for all five seasons of this show:

How do you not lose hope?

This is a show all about the struggle to keep hope alive. The characters fail and succeed in various ways. Cooper is failing right now. Sherman, on the other hand, has jumped into his personal darkness with no qualms. The death of hope has meant nothing to him — yet. He’s embracing the dark side, while Sammy is imploding under the weight of it.

It’s fascinating to see the writers subjecting their characters to such intense moral stresses. Cooper and Hatosy are true heroes; Lydia is a warrior; Ruben has a laid-back cool that allows him to navigate the horrors; Dewey… is Dewey. One has to wonder where the writers will leave Sherman: because so far, he is loving the freedom that comes from divorcing yourself from moral constraints. Thanks to Ben McKenzie’s fine acting, Sherman’s amorality actually suits him.

So, it was a dark night of the soul in the SouthLAnd this week. Characters are being tested in deeper and more destructive ways. It’s the most intense kind of drama there is.

Random Witness Statements:

  • Seriously, what did Cooper say?!
  • “You were like a god to me.”
  • “A bullet proof vest wears Chuck Norris for protection.”
  • Dewey vs. Dewey’s daughter: brilliant
  • “Tell Chick Baby you’re sorry…” Damn, Sammy!
  • “You walked on water, JC.” 
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SouthLAnd “Babel”: Fallback mode, just like the old days

With the third episode of this fifth season, SouthLAnd took it to another level.

With first-timer (to the show) Aaron Rahsaan Thomas’s emotionally scathing script imbuing an aggressive new style with a classic old-school feel, and Jimmy Muro’s basically goddamn brilliant direction (and lighting), this was one of the great SouthLAnd episodes.

The script had some of Chitra Sampath’s anarchic humor (Bryant and Hatosy doing a hand-puppet show for first-graders), Cheo Coker’s pop culture style and graceful nods to the old ways (Cooper’s note-perfect conversation with his former TO), Heather Zuhlke’s textural genius and Jonathan Lisco’s precise emotional scalpel. But this is not to say it was not original — it was. Thomas integrated everything that makes the show great and made it into something new: Babel was sharper, faster moving, more streamlined. His beats and scenes had a raucous, deliberately unstable energy. He nailed the inherent absurdity potential of life on the streets, and also the way that ridiculousness can tip over into gut-wrenching horror. Dewey’s boot nearly decapitating herself on a steel wire during a pursuit; the skateboard thugs vs. the old-timers; the hallucinogenic lemonade (really); the ongoing farce of Sammy and Tammi spilling over into real danger; the quiet, implacable horror of the shootings; the sadness of Cooper at the world maybe changing faster than he can handle. All those things flowed, smoothly, seamlessly, woven together by the overall chaos of LAPD dispatch being down. Communication was all over the place; the episode was perfectly titled.

It rocked on the page, and with Muro calling the shots, you know it rolled on the screen.

Shots fired

Shots fired

Jimmy Muro, man. What a legend. Not only is he a legendary DP who has worked with some of the greatest directors of all time on some of the greatest movies of all time  (Michael Mann’s Heat being a prime example), but he knows how to shoot the shit out of a script himself. Babel was his finest directorial work on SouthLAnd yet. It’s like he shoots in 3D — he adds a visual dimension that many directors miss. This was one of the most beautifully composed episodes in the show’s history. It was there when the camera was on Sammy driving, looking past him at Sherman on the passenger side, the depth of field through Sherman’s window — the sheer level of detail in the angles all the way into the distance was beautiful. It was present in the constant wheeling glimpses of the fortress LA skyline in the background of shots, the causal integration of the incredible architecture of the city.

Muro gets that LA skyline

Muro gets that LA skyline

Every scene was expertly staged and shot for maximum chaos and viscerality: the skate thugs scene was simple on the surface, but highly complex underneath. The car racing past and swerving within a few inches of Cooper on the street was an adrenaline-pumping second or two; it was brilliantly done — the scene just kept moving. Or in a simpler moment, when Lydia and Ruben were talking to the mother of the murdered kid (her third murdered child), Muro kept the camera focused on a picture of the three kids, while the principals in the scene were out of focus.

Genius in every shot. And that included the actors.

As always, the guest actors were phenomenal. The teacher coming on to Sherman, the old lady taking on the skate thugs; they, and the others, brought a tremendous realism  to every second they were on screen — they were (and always are ) one of the key components of the greatness of this show.

Annie Monroe likes what she sees

Annie Monroe likes what she sees

The core cast nailed it too. The shifting relationship between Bryant and Sherman is being portrayed with absolutely incredible acting by Hatosy and McKenzie. It’s a complex relationship, and they’re making us believe every up and down of it. Cudlitz was really great too. His emotional conversation with his former TO on the boat was a masterpiece of subtlety and nuance. Don’t retire, Cooper!

McShane and Cudlitz

McShane and Cudlitz

So, yeah, this was a kick-ass episode, up there in the pantheon of great SouthLAnd eps. And the preview for next week looked even more insane. Season Five is going from strength to strength.

Random witness statements:

  • It’s so great to have Tommy Howell as a regular
  • Can we get Jamie McShane promoted to regular too?
  • “I’m driving. I am contact.”
  • JIMMY MURO
  • Sometimes things get lost in translation — great opening voiceover.

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.

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.