SouthLAnd: “Wednesday”

SouthLAnd‘s fourth season explodes onto the screen like a roaring freight train with no brakes coming right at you.

Freeze frame.

This opening episode is a brutal, hard-charging statement of intent. The makers of this show know the only way to survive is to evolve uncompromisingly. They act accordingly.

Unfreeze.

From a fan’s perspective — hell, from every perspective — Wednesday was a fantastic episode, not just of the show, but of TV drama. The show moved faster, hit harder, got up in your face and never backed down, like Sherman facing down the yard full of gangbangers. SouthLAnd is a show that does not flinch, ever, and this opening episode was a searingly perfect example of that refusal to blink.

It all started with Jonathan Lisco’s script, which was a belter, a masterclass in taut & spare drama with its blistering dialogue, sky-rocketing tension, a pulsing sense of ever-present danger, brutally honed action scenes, gut-punching emotion, and genuinely, show-stoppingly horrifying sequences.

This is how you open a season.

Lisco’s script didn’t waste a second in throwing us into Lydia’s still-troubled existence, the much anticipated ball-busting banter between Sherman and Bryant, the introduction of Lucy Liu’s Jessica Tang, and, perhaps most highly anticipated of all, the return of John Cooper.

Everyone in this show brings their all to every scene; this episode was jammed with outstanding performances. Ben McKenzie and Shawn Hatosy were pitch-perfect in their back and forth; Regina King is one of the greatest actresses in TV drama; C. Thomas Howell killed it; Lucy Liu was truly great, while Lou Diamond Phillips laid down intensity and fire. And Michael Cudlitz brought true authority to the return of the beloved Cooper.

These razor-sharp performances were handled with breathtaking kinetic style by Christopher Chulack, backed by the legendary Jimmy Muro as DP. This was without a doubt the most visceral episode in the show’s history.

With humor, emotion, white-knuckle action, pyschological brutality, and outright horror, Chulack and Muro elevated the show’s brutal aesthetic to a whole new level. It was breathless, gasp-inducing television that flipped your expectations hard and didn’t give you a second to recover. Even when it made you laugh (and this is, sincerely, one of the funniest dramas out there), it was a jagged laughter, rough with pain.

Between them, Chulack and Muro forged a whole new style of filmmaking. It was as though they’d discovered a new dimension of light and motion. Chulack had the camera racing headlong throughout Los Angeles, while Muro captured everything from bleached-out sunglare to waves sadly lapping on the beach in dusk light.

It was a thrilling, gut-wrenching, brilliant hour of television. And as always, it reinforced, through the opening freeze-frame, what is, essentially, the show’s core belief: “our worst nightmare is just their Wednesday.”

If the opening episode was this good, it’s mind-blowing to imagine just how astonishing the rest of the season will be. Because this is a show that tightrope-runs on live-wires.

Even if you’ve never watched SouthLAnd before, start now.

SouthLAnd: Graduation Day

And so, with a building, searing intensity, the final episode of SouthLAnd‘s season three roared to its emotionally explosive conclusion.

Such a bittersweet moment for fans and presumably creators alike. As the opening voiceover reminded us, sometimes you just have to make that leap. Throughout its two year, three season, 23 episode history, SouthLAnd has been fearless and unflinching, never hesitating as it ran over the rooftops of network and cable drama, fast, fitter, harder than the rest.

With Graduation Day, the show delivered astonishingly, beautifully, heartbreakingly, poetically and ball-bustingly on all the narrative arcs it had set up and laid down in the previous 22 episodes. Such relentless emotional follow-through is rare in TV drama. Comparing the events of the episode to the original pilot script, broadcast as Unknown Trouble, it’s an intense and moving experience to see how the show has so powerfully come into its own. It’s followed Ben Sherman from that terrifying first day, full of the unknown trouble of the title, through to his, and the show’s, graduation. Although Sherman has often been a quiet presence, SouthLAnd has always been powered by his story. Both Sherman and the show now stand on the edge of a new era in their existence. SouthLAnd has done a phenomenal job of maintaining its core truths while aggressively evolving within its world. Season three has seen the show expand, despite the budgetary hardships of the move to cable — it feels bigger than ever, and that is a testament to the extraordinary creative team, working harder and smarter than ever to deliver the best cop show of all time, and one of the undisputed, heavyweight greatest TV dramas I’ve ever seen.

What an episode it was. Part graduation, part commencement speech for the future. And lots of running. With a story by Heather Zuhkle, teleplay by John Wells, direction from Christopher Chulack, and eerie, beautiful, raw and hypnotic lighting from Jimmy Muro, Graduation Day was a full court press from start to finish. This season has showcased great and powerful writing and directing from Cheo Coker, Chitra Sampath, Allison Anders, Muro, and many, many others. But you have to bow down to the showrunners, the OGs: when John Wells and Christopher Chulack step up to the plate, they don’t f**k around. The pedal goes to the metal and stays there.

Whether it was bringing a season’s worth of crackling tension to an explosive conclusion as Lydia sparred against Josie about dating her son, or fulfilling the promise of the first season by having Sammy finally become a father (in messed up circumstances to be sure, but it’s him and Tammi, it couldn’t be any other way), Graduation Day handled its storylines and emotional arcs perfectly. It was great to watch Regina King play Lydia’s happy yet complex arc in this episode, creating one of the most enjoyable storylines of the show to date.

Most cathartic and showstopping of all of the narratives was the inevitable, long-awaited showdown between Sherman and Cooper, as Sherman finally, monumentally lost it on his disintegrating training officer. McKenzie and Cudlitz unloaded both barrels on each other for this scene, tearing the scene apart with their bare hands. McKenzie had some work to do. Following on from his bare knuckle rooftop fight with his suspect (one of the most painfully raw, real, intense and prolonged fight scenes we’ve seen on TV), McKenzie had to raise his game to take on the mighty presence of Cudlitz, formidable even when he has to play someone barely holding on. It was a great, classic scene, resonating with all the force of its two-year build-up.

Michael Cudlitz laid it down in this episode, anchoring the entire show with the craggy, iconic power of his performance. His acting ranged from intensely physical (his truly heartbreaking attempts to climb the ladder), to painfully intense (“I did f**king chase after you!”), to devastatingly quiet and detailed (saying “thank you” to Sherman; checking himself into rehab). Cudlitz stepped up to the plate and batted 1000. McKenzie delivered too: after three seasons of mostly having to repress his impulses, he finally got to explode with full force and authority, literally tearing Cudlitz up from the street and laying into him: “you’re a f**king goddamn useless training officer.” It was great f**king television.

It was a hell of a season for Sammy Bryant. Throughout it, Shawn Hatosy prowled like De Niro, tore it up like Sean Penn, and brought a restless, relentless energy to the role. He had some gruelling, raw scenes, and he gave them everything. Hatosy had a powerful, extraordinary season. This episode captured all of it. From the scenes in the delivery room, to the catharsis of seeing Nate’s killer die (“Nate Moretta, motherf**ker”), to the revelation that his newborn son was called Nathaniel, to his desperate look at the photo of himself and Nate, Hatosy took the outstanding scenes and beats given to him by John Wells and brought them to life with beautiful authenticity. It was heartbreaking. And it made his final scenes all the more bad-ass: as he walked out in uniform with his new partner, the one and only Ben Sherman, Hatosy showed us just how damn awesome season four is going to be as they trade the quirky streets of Hollywood for the tougher world of Alvarado.

In this final scene, we also discovered that Sherman has graduated nicknames, from Boot to Pup. Although Sherman must have felt like he was back at the start in some ways, that wry smile on McKenzie’s face in the final shot said it all: this shit is only going to get better.

As the show heads into its seemingly inevitable season four, one thing needs to be made clear: we need more Michael McGrady, C. Thomas Howell and Arija Bareikis! McGrady brought his customary presence and gravitas, backing it up this week with some heartfelt emotion, anchoring the scene with Sammy at the end with fatherly concern and genuine worry. Howell and Bareikis are great together, with snappy chemistry and a natural rhythm.

It’s important to take a moment here to acknowledge that this was the season Jimmy Muro came into his own, and brought the entire show with him. As director of photography, Muro did extraordinary things with light on this season, taking the show’s raw, kinetic aesthetic, and imbuing it with the otherworldly sheen of an ethereal sci-fi dream. And as director of two episodes (Cheo Coker’s Cop Or Not and Chitra Sampath’s Failure Drill), Muro unleashed his vision, creating haunting, complex visual textures that recalled Blade Runner and Star Trek with their deep ambient quality and mesmerizing lens flare. Muro is the master of that legendary Los Angeles light: dealing with it head-on in the show’s signature bleached-out, oversaturated glare, bringing in new visual grace notes by reflecting magic hour light on the downtown skyscrapers. Muro brought vital extra dimensions to SouthLAnd, creating yet another way in which the show effortlessly, quietly, almost imperceptibly differentiated itself from its peers.

At the time of writing, no announcement has been made by TNT about the show’s future. Renewal seems highly likely with the steady increase in ratings (Graduation Day being the highest rated of the season), and the sheer bench strength of the entire cast and crew. This is a brutally high quality production, and it deserves a long future. Finally, the awards have started coming to the show: Regina King recently and deservedly won the NAACP award for Outstanding Actress In A Drama Series — this must surely only be the beginning of a wave of writing, acting and technical awards for this peerless show.

All that remains is for me to say a heartfelt thank you to everyone involved in bringing this amazing show to our screens. It’s had a huge impact on me, on my writing and my life. It’s been an extraordinary ride so far, and all the elements are in place for SouthLAnd to take it to the next level in season four.

Until then, I’ll leave you with John Cooper’s words of wisdom:

“Look sharp, act sharp, be sharp.”

SouthLAnd: Survival

Over the freeze frame of the flame of gunfire came the theme of Failure Drill: “To protect and to serve, that’s the LAPD motto… But as most cops’ll tell ya, sometimes you’re lucky if you can just survive.”

And this was an episode all about trying to survive, trying to make it through the day, trying to just stay upright and awake, trying not to lose it, trying not to die, and, often, trying not to laugh so damn hard. The signature SouthLAnd blend.

Written by Chitra Elizabeth Sampath, Failure Drill was her first script for the show, although you would never know it: the episode was classic season three SouthLAnd, one of the best-written this season. It was an assured and playful script that did what SouthLAnd does best, being full of smart turns, sharp dialogue, jaw-droppingly “no that just didn’t happen” humor, swift and surprising reversals, and a clear line of sight right to the emotional heart of the show. She advanced major storylines, threw in great, thrilling and truthful character moments, and wove it all together in a fast-moving, never-stopping express train.

The show opened with Lydia being trained in the titular failure drill. This referred to a police shooting technique: shoot the attacker twice in the chest to see if they’re wearing a vest. If they don’t go down, shoot once more to the head. This is exactly what SouthLAnd does emotionally, and it proved to be a great metaphor for the episode that followed.

Sampath showed us Lydia at her absolute best, and Regina King took full advantage of the huge range that Lydia got to explore. Whether it was her masterful handling of the husband who murdered his wife, her empathy with their son, her deep struggle with whether to let herself relax and open up to the possibility of dating Morales, or her all-out action hero scenes at the end, King threw herself body and soul into all of it.

Shawn Hatosy had some great scenes too, showing us how he’s at the very top of his game, crackling with energy, rage and authority. Hatosy’s best scene was his priceless reaction to the staggering next level of Tammi’s insanity, which literally came out of nowhere in a fantastically perfect interchange, one of Sampath’s finest in the episode. A heavily pregnant Tammi showed up unexpectedly, interrupting Sammy’s questioning of a suspect. “How the hell did you find me?” Sammy asked her. “I put a Find My Friends app on your phone,” she replied. Hatosy’s reaction shot was f**king brilliant — Sammy could barely process this: “I’m a gang detective,” he manfully forced out in utter disbelief, “I can’t have a f**king Find My Friends app on my phone.” Tammi struck back with, “are we having this baby together, or not?” Her mission to completely f*ck with Sammy’s head continues successfully.

The main event in this episode, though, was John Cooper’s steady, seemingly unstoppable descent into hell, via his painkiller addiction. Sampath handled this with great subtlety and style, choreographing Ben and John’s scenes with finesse. Their “off the record” conversation was heartbreaking, but artfully messed up, in true SouthLAnd style. Ben McKenzie and Michael Cudlitz both gave the scene, and the episode, all the intensity they had, and it was great. Their arc also showed Sampath’s real strength: delivering character development and raw emotion on the fly and deep beneath the surface of fast-moving, brutal dialogue. All of which is frequently broken up by absolute jewels of brilliant comedy, like Sherman demonstrating the child car seats, or Adams discovering who Morales was related to — surely one of the most awesome surprises ever thrown at us by the show.

There’s no doubt that with this episode, Sampath executed her own failure drill on all the other cop shows out there, dropping them in three.

But as wonderfully written as this episode was, it’s now time to hail the relatively unsung hero of SouthLAnd, the master of light and motion, the man who turns the lens into an emotional perspective and makes everything look harshly beautiful, making LA look simultaneously just like it is, and like we’ve never seen it before: the one and only Jimmy Muro. Failure Drill was the best looking SouthLAnd episode of all three seasons. Muro, usually the director of photography on the show, directed this one, proving himself (not that it needed proving) to be the grand master of the show’s aesthetic.

He lit and shot the shit out of the show this week. Using hypnotic lens flare, brutal oversaturation, and great visual textures (from the golden light of the Hollywood day to the deep blue of dusk in downtown LA), Muro elevated the show to new visual heights, relentlessly pursuing a futuristic aesthetic that enhanced the emotional bullet-like precision of the show. As Lydia prowled the levels of the factory towards the end of the show, searching for the shooter who had massacred many of the workers, Muro lit the scenes like the end of Blade Runner, bringing a haunting art deco depth and future-retro timelessness to the atmosphere. He followed this up by lighting the final scene with Ben and Cooper like it was shot in an alien city many years from now, all shining blue-white flare and futuristic light. It was mesmerizing, compelling and remarkable.

Failure Drill was the perfect set up for the season finale, Graduation Day. As the fans await news of renewal (and maybe a blu-ray box set), we have the prospect of an awesome finale to look forward to. This is the show that keeps surviving, because it’s just so damn good.