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.

Southland: “Discretion” is advised

Season three of Southland continues to go from strength to strength. After last week’s complex, multilayered, full-cast episode comes this week’s Discretion, a more dramatically compact, but much richer hour.

From the opening flashforward (“not every cop bats a thousand”) as Ben was hurled into the plate glass and we freeze-framed on the image of him amidst thousands of shards of exploding glass, this episode made its intentions clear. There was only one question to be answered: would Ben be able to control himself now that his mother’s rapist was back on the streets?

With a more stripped down cast, Discretion mined deeper levels of conflict and richer character nuance. Jonathan Lisco’s script was a gift for all of the actors this week. Everyone started the show at odds, in conflict, snapping and driving back and forth at each other as the narrative took us ever closer to the seemingly inevitable confrontation between Ben and David Morgan, the man who years ago attacked Ben’s mom, knocked out Ben’s teeth, and set him on course to become a cop. It was compelling storytelling throughout. Lydia sparred with her still-new partner Josie. Sammy argued with Tammi via phone, while testing his friendship with Nate (what a great pair these two are, and what great work Shawn Hatosy and Kevin Alejandro do together). And Cooper was pissed at Sherman from start to finish, with room for some great training officer moments. Michael Cudlitz had a great episode (he is batting a thousand this season), Shawn Hatosy did awesome, heartbreaking work, and Regina King gifted Lydia with more layers and nuances than ever before. They all had great scenes to tear into.

But it was Ben Mckenzie’s episode from start to finish, and he owned it. From his pent-up, barely contained rage at the beginning, through to his stalking of Morgan, and the brutal beating he hands out to the perp who sends him through the plate glass, McKenzie just gave us his Emmy episode. And that was before the crushing final scene, which was classic Southland: incredibly quiet on the surface, but driven by heartrending truths like dark, powerful currents. McKenzie killed it. If you thought last week’s ending hurt, it was nothing compared to what was effectively the complete dismantling of Sherman’s whole moral structure and the foundation of his actions and beliefs, in a few devastatingly quiet seconds. Southland has never been so simultaneously  low-key and gut-punching as it was in the closing moments of Discretion.

This episiode had the force of Ben going through that window, and emotionally speaking it ended like that opening freeze frame: thousands of emotional shards hanging motionless in the air. A horrific, shattering moment for Sherman.