SouthLAnd aces its “Integrity Check”

If ever there was a show that didn’t need an integrity check, it’s SouthLAnd. No show has ever been more authentic.

And this was one of its most stripped back, brutal episodes.

It started with the photoflash freezeframe voiceover, which was much more to the point than usual: the average street cop in Los Angeles makes $75,000 a year… it’s not enough.

It really isn’t, judging by the hell that our characters have to fight through every week, which sometimes comes from the cases they work, and other times is of their own making. However it occurs, the characters on SouthLAnd get pushed further and harder than those on any other show. It’s f**king brutal, but it’s what makes the greatest dramas.

This week was rough. It had its funny scenes, of course, because this show can be violent and dark and horribly sad and gut-punchingly funny at any given moment, without ever sacrificing its ability to grab you in an emotional choke-hold or make you laugh while it’s doing it. Whether it was Sherman’s “leap of shame” or Dewey’s entirely expected yet so much worse than you expected ranting in front of the documentary crew, Integrity Check brought the raw humor when it wanted to.

It just didn’t want to very often. With this sixth episode, SouthLAnd turned the corner of darkness and pain that it’s been heading towards since the start of the season. You get the feeling things are only going to get more messed up from here.

Ben McKenzie and Shawn Hatosy nailed the disintegration of the trust between them, bringing a raw energy that made their performances more wrenching. Regina King was superlative, as she always is, dealing with Lydia’s temporary return to uniform duty with the almost unbearably visceral physical challenges that involves. But while we might have thought what happened to her was awful, we had no idea what was waiting for us at the end of Cooper’s shift.

Once again, this show reveals just how much of a knife-edge cops walk on, every minute of every day. Anything can happen at any time, and it can be goddamned terrible and come out of nowhere. Michael Cudlitz again stepped up and delivered an Emmy-worthy performance as Cooper found himself suddenly embroiled in a truly horrific and shockingly savage fight to the almost death. It was intensely physical, taking the show’s already extraordinary physicality to a new, transcendently brutal level.

It was breathless television, unbelievable, unwatchable almost, although you couldn’t tear your eyes away.

That’s what SouthLAnd does to you.

It was a great script that took us to that terrible place, penned by SouthLAnd’s master of brutal precision, Jonathan Lisco, with story editing by Chitra Sampath. Lisco brings an emotional scalpel to his stories, flaying characters bare, down to the bone. His scripts are always perfect studies in structure, pace, and ruthless execution. Sampath brings a wonderfully unhinged sense of humor (her “find my friends app” scene in Failure Drill is still one of the greatest comedy moments of the show), and an impeccable sense of controlled chaos coupled with the ability to unleash it at the exact right moment. With Sampath on board, all hell will typically break loose, at the worst moment for our characters. And so it does here.

A script by Lisco demands the greatest of the SouthLAnd directors, Christopher Chulack. While John Wells runs the writers room, it’s Chulack who is on the street, running the other directors, and acting as the guardian of SouthLAnd‘s visual aesthetic. In this, he is ably assisted by the greatest director of photography in film and TV, Jimmy Muro. Between them, Chulack & Muro create masterpieces of depth and motion with the L.A. light and locations. Two particular examples out of many: the reflections of palm trees along the strip mall windows where Cooper and Tang deal with the “cake incident”; the depth of field and rich, endless golden light behind Cooper as the documentary crew film him after he lets the driver with expired registration go.

The episode was full of such moments, and it had a new layer this time round: that of the camera crew filming the cops. This allowed Chulack & Muro to change visual textures and create constantly evolving looks for the episode as they switched between the documentary, and the show’s normal look (which is ultra-heightened, desaturated documentary). It was a fascinating decision to introduce this conceptual and visual layer, and it worked perfectly.

Episodes of SouthLAnd are like the Sistine Chapel of television. Chulack & Muro are artists of the streets. But it’s art that knocks you flat on your ass with its impact. They’re refining their approach with every episode, and Integrity Check represented a new level of beautiful detail, deep light, layers upon complex layers; all of which drove the shocking and visceral moment to moment heart-stopping action, which was front and center throughout. It was, visually, a beautiful & haunting episode. As happens so often, it was a masterclass in framing, composition, lighting, depth and motion.

Let’s face it, SouthLAnd is a show that will wrestle you to the ground and savage you emotionally. It may lull you with the beauty of Los Angeles, the punch of its humor, the soulful camaraderie of its characters, but don’t let it: because it will come for you eventually, and put you through the ringer, leaving you exhausted, drained, shaking.

It’s what you keep coming back for.

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.

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.

Scriptwriting… SouthLAnd style

If I may get personal for a moment… I write movies and TV scripts with a writing partner, and recently was extremely happy to find out that our SouthLAnd spec script was a quarter finalist in the 2010 Scriptapalooza TV competition. SouthLAnd is a show that is dear to my heart. It raises its game each and every week, and it’s a show that I love deeply. Writing that script was in some ways my way of paying tribute to the show; it really is the perfect template for the best kind of drama. It’s inspired me in all kinds of ways in writing and in life. After writing the spec script, I wrote a drama pilot which, although set in the cop world, was very different from SouthLAnd. But I tried to adhere to everything I’ve learned from watching this show. If you watch SouthLAnd with a writer’s eye, you see how extraordinary the writing on the show is. Whether it’s Jonathan Lisco’s hyper-detailed situations and emotional precision, or Cheo Hodari Coker’s lively, wide-ranging pop culture references and genius for character work, all the writers on the show bring heart, meaning and an unflinching approach to emotionally devasting moments. Each episode of the show is a masterclass in how to develop characters, how to get into and out of a scene in seconds if necessary, while still giving it maximum psychological impact. The writers are masters of distillation, which all good writers have to be: it’s just that on this show, it’s taken to a whole other level. It’s inspiring on many levels. It inspires me to write, to fight for the dreams that fuel everything I do. It inspires me to learn more, and to push myself beyond my limits, because that’s where the truth is.

These kinds of recognitions form an incremental beauty. Whether it’s stories in anthologies, being placed in script competitions, or almost getting into script workshops, knowing that people respond to what you do, respond to your voice, is a powerful thing. As a writer, making that connection is vital. It’s what it’s all about, and whenever it happens, I feel grateful and inspired to do more.

And I have to say, after watching this week’s episode, Sideways, as a writer I’d be overjoyed if I knew that Allison Anders was going to direct something I had written. Just saying.

SouthLAnd: “if you love her, hold out”

“Even when cops do everything right, things can still go sideways.”

The show opened full throttle in the midst of a wild car chase, moving fast until Dewey and Chickie’s patrol car ploughed right into a pedestrian; and we stopped.

These flash forwards and freeze frames, SouthLAnd‘s unique signature starting points, have become an art form in themselves: that brief burst of critical action, accelerated then punched out as the images freezes, and the voiceover delivers the driving force behind the episode.

It’s the rush of the episode distilled into brutally compact form. A brutal street haiku, which essentially is what SouthLAnd is. The life of cops on the streets in highly charged shards of meaning; rushes of emotional, psychological and physical violence. At its best, the show is primal, relentlessly pursuing the truth of what it means to be human as though it was a fleeing suspect; one that the show captures every time. At its heart, the show is a stark look at humanity through the lens of the LAPD. It takes place in the bleached bright glare and the dark shadows of the city.

This week’s episode, Sideways, was in many ways classic SouthLAnd. The director, much respected indie helmer Allison Anders, did a beautiful job in capturing the starkness of the human drama, the simplicity of the high impact moments, and the contrast between oversaturated light and deep shadows that gives the show its visual and emotional texture.

Thanks to Anders, Sideways felt like a deeper version of the show. Assisted by regular DP (and last week’s director) Jimmy Muro, Anders crafted a heightened and more brutal version of SouthLAnd. Jonathan Lisco’s script delivered a precise distillation of emotional trauma and revelations that, although they were not shocking, were still heartbreaking.

From the opening, as Dewey and Chickie’s patrol car hurtled unstoppably into the pedestrian crossing the street, through Sammy’s steady, inexorable unraveling, to Lydia’s beautifully moving scenes with dying murder witness Henry Watts (subtly, fascinatingly and compellingly portrayed by Malcom Barrett), this episode came at you hard.

In previous endings this season, we’ve seen Ben Mckenzie’s Sherman break down with the shattering revelations from his mother, Michael Cudlitz’s Cooper delivering his primal howl of pain in the desert, Shawn Hatosy’s Sammy facing the end of his marriage, and the loss of Kevin Alejandro as Nate. In the frame this week for the total disintegration of everything they believed in: Detective Lydia Adams. By the time Russell delivered the news that we all surely already knew, Anders was expert enough to stop everything and just hold the close up on Regina King. We didn’t need the usual restless kineticism of the show anymore: we needed to be still, because everything was happening in Regina King’s extraordinary portrayal of Lydia’s reaction to her ultimate betrayal. While Shawn Hatosy has been manfully tearing this season away from his costars with a steadily building raw hurt intensity, Regina King took three minutes to take the show for herself. With her face filling the screen, King showed us in beautiful physical detail what it looks like when your closest friend tears your heart out.

King had already given us some wonderful work earlier in the episode with her moving and intense scenes with Malcolm Barrett, playing the witness caught in the crossfire of a parking lot shootout. Barrett gave a nuanced, vivid performance. At first, they flirted at the scene as Lydia worked him for information. Then, in true SouthLAnd style, we found out that “this man doesn’t have a concussion — he has a bullet in his head.” When Lydia rejoined Henry Watts, he was dying slowly, although he didn’t know it. They talked, in one of SouthLAnd’s most beautifully written scenes to date. Watts described falling in love with his fiance, who was on her way to the hospital, and even prompted Lydia to share her love history. By this time, Watts knew he didn’t have much time left, and he asked Lydia flat out, “would you go under the knife for the one percent chance at living, or try to hold out, to say goodbye?”

Sideways was one of the few episodes this season to feature everybody, and it was well handled by Lisco and Anders. Everyone had their moment. The always welcome Michael McGrady tried to keep Hatosy in check; Yara Martinez was beautifully understated and moving in her few scenes with Hatosy. Cudlitz and McKenzie continued to perfect their double act while dealing with rogue ice cream sellers, until they found themselves caught up in Dewey’s tragedy, while Arija Bareikis did some heartbreaking work as Chickie, dealing with the aftermath of the fatal accident.

Anders’ camera was restless throughout, frequently glancing up at the bleached-bone glare of the LA sky, or prowling close to the action. She did an awesome job with what she said on Twitter was her first ever car chase on film — you wouldn’t know it, because it was one of the most visceral, thrilling car chases we’ve seen on the show, right up to the fatal collision, and the subsequent near-shootout at the intersection of Yucca and Argyll, the Capitol Records building in the background. This sequence illustrated the way that SouthLAnd stays street level, keeping it fast-moving, real and detailed. Sideways was in some ways an emotional car chase that didn’t slow down until it was too late. By that point, Lydia was devastated, as were we. I hope that the show itself doesn’t stop, and accelerates into a fourth season and beyond. With “Live + 7” ratings of over 3 million and rising, the signs are good.