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.

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SouthLAnd: Coker plays the blues

In Fixing A Hole, writer Cheo Hodari Coker got to play the blues with his script, laying down classic grooves, finessing new phrasings, and blowing hard when he needed to. This script was like the jazz in Kerouac’s On The Road: raw, real, skillful and powerful.

The episode was also notable for finally bringing Yara Martinez in from the periphery of the show. She has a quietly hypnotic acting style that consumes her scenes in the best kind of way. Up until now, playing Nate’s widow Mariella Moretta, she’s been doing beautiful, haunting work with the briefest of screen time, but in this episode she got to take center stage with her warm, emotional artistry. In fact, this was something of a theme: Fixing A Hole was all about taking control, moving forward, taking your moment in the spotlight. What you do with that moment is what defines you.

It was a simple blues in some ways, asking the question, what makes a man or a woman who they really are?

Whether it was Lydia and Josie wrangling their alcoholic witness, Cooper and Sherman chasing down leads to find out what had really happened to 9 year old Michael Peterson, or Sammy taking his suspect out to the desert and making him dig his potential grave, the characters had to deal with or face up to their own darkness, or the darkness of those around them.

Coker invoked old time Hollywood as well as his usual perfectly chosen and delivered array of pop culture references, everything from Charlie’s Angels to Transformers (C. Thomas Howell nailed Dewey’s line, “where’s Optimus Prime when you need him?”), to the king of crime and old-school 40s Hollywood, James Ellroy himself. “I had a callback for L.A. Confidential,” says Lydia’s witness as they have dinner at the Pacific Dining Car (“James Ellroy’s favorite restaurant”), “then I found out Kim Basinger was interested. Story of my life.”

These kinds of references really make the script pop; they give it swagger and life. Coker is a master at this game, but he can write lines that fly at you like roundhouses. When Sammy tries to persuade a bank teller to waive a rule to make things easier on Mariella as she deals with Nate’s accounts, he clinches his case with “he was killed protecting your right to give her shit.” Damn. Elsewhere, Michael Cudlitz had the line of the episode, as Cooper loses his shit with a social worker. She tells him she has a master’s degree, to which he explodes, “And I have a PhD in street, who gives a shit.”

The episode was beautifully shot by Christopher Chulack, who is a maestro of the RED One cameras and the way they capture light. Chulack always finds the most interesting and yet utterly unobtrusive angles from which to play each scene. Allison Anders did a beautiful job finding the angles of truth in her episode Sideways, and Chulack did the same here.

Interestingly, SouthLAnd has always been deliberately sparse musically — aside from the pilot and one or two episodes after that in season one, it never used soundtrack music. That changed with Coker’s Punching Water episode earlier this season, which featured a montage to music. And with Fixing A Hole, Coker brings music to the streets again, introducing the great, booming blues song “Something On Your Mind” by Big Jay McNeely (I think this is the right version), first within a scene (as Sammy shows up to get his suspect), but then over the final shot of Sammy coming to grips with all kinds of realizations about himself, and his complex relationship with Nate’s widow. In many ways, SouthLAnd is the raw, painful ballad of Los Angeles, and Coker is one of the show’s finest players.