The GLOW of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK: Why Jenji Kohan just had her best TV month ever

***THERE WILL BE SPOILERS FOR OITNB AND GLOW***

June, 2017.

The month kicked off with the long-awaited, cliffhanger-resolving fifth season of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, and concluded with the debut of the fantastic new show about 80s women’s wrestling in L.A., GLOW. What did two of the greatest seasons of TV this year so far have in common, apart from absolutely kick-ass female ensemble casts? Executive producer/showrunner Jenji Kohan.

Jenji Kohan

Kohan, courtesy of THR

OITNB ended on a mother of a cliffhanger last year, with a frantic, uncertain Daya aiming Humphrey’s gun at his head.

OITNB Daya

Kohan and her writers made a bold and brilliant choice for this new season: the show picked up at that exact moment, and the entire season took place over three days. This gave the show a freshness and immediacy that kept adrenaline and interest levels skyrocketing as we followed the evolution of the riot. It allowed for some seriously deep dives into all of the characters. We also got whole new levels to relationships, some unlikely bonds, and even a marriage proposal. The danger and threat level remained absolute throughout, although the show still managed to weave in its signature laughs and sadness. Taystee in particular got some insanely powerful moments, proving that Danielle Brooks is the MVP not just of this show, but also TV, acting, and life. No doubt.

OITNB Taystee

The end result was that the writing was tighter, more precise; the characters more nuanced; the actors had more freedom and opportunity to truly go there with their performances. It was a thrilling and emotionally exhausting ride, the best season of the show yet, which closed with the best episode (with the best use of music in the show to date), and, yes, an even bigger cliffhanger than last year.

OITNB S5 ending

What a start to the month for Kohan.

But she wasn’t done. Nope. Not even close, baby! Because one awesome and extraordinary cast of magnificent women per month just isn’t enough. Enter, GLOW.

GLOW cast

Created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch (playwrights who between them have worked on Nurse Jackie, Homeland and OITNB), this is a modern take on the 80s cult classic show of the same name (Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling), albeit one still beautifully grounded in its gritty 80s setting. It’s still colorful, but it’s the dirty underside of the day-glo. The sets are grimy and unglamorous, the performances are grounded and nuanced, and the song choices for the soundtrack are always a zig where you expect a zag—no one could have foreseen that one of the best moments of the series would be set to a song from the original Transformers cartoon movie, “Dare” by Stan Bush (and Rocky IV training montage composer Vince DiCola for maximum 80s!).

GLOW Ep 7 Transformers

The amazing “Transformers” sequence in the amazing episode 7 of the amazing GLOW

The show foregrounds the desperation, neediness, hurt, and all the other messy emotions of its protagonists. It’s real, in other words. Painfully so, sometimes, and that’s one of the keys to why it works so damn well. The writers on this show—including Rachel Shukart, Nick Jones and Sascha Rothchild—do an expert job of contrasting the moments of emotional sweetness and uplift with the exposed wiring of the human heart (not literally, this isn’t GAME OF THRONES).

One of the main reasons for GLOW’s awesomeness, though, is its glorious cast of incredible actresses. This is a show that is not afraid to foreground its women and take ferocious aim at the gender discrepancy in Hollywood (and, like, the world). The show focuses on struggling actress Ruth, who is played to revelatory perfection by the always great but never better Alison Brie in what is, inexplicably, her first real leading role. Hopefully this pushes her into the acting stratosphere she deserves—incredibly, she had to audition multiple times for what should’ve been the easiest casting decision of all time (yes yes, I know casting is a truly complicated puzzle in many dimensions that needs to be completed *exactly* right or the whole thing falls apart… I absolutely know this… but c’mon… it’s Ali Brie!)…

GLOW Brie

GLOW opens with Brie’s Ruth giving her all in an audition for a female role that is nothing compared to the male role. This sets the tone perfectly: These women have a struggle on their hands. They have to fight, and fight hard, for something that is only in the vicinity of what they really want. Ruth is a great character to drive a show like this. Her neediness and desperation and unflinching desire to transcend her circumstances are powerful engines that keep the story rolling.

GLOW Ruth car

This is one of Ruth’s more glamorous moments in the show

Brie’s performance is fearless and unflinching. But this isn’t a one-woman show. There are fourteen amazing women on screen, and any one of them could be the lead, because the writers have made each of them so fully grounded and realized, and because the performances are all so vulnerable and magnetic and empathetic and funny and raw. I could write an essay on each of them, but suffice it to say, they all get arcs and standout moments, and every single actress here KILLS IT AT ALL TIMES.

The combination of breathtaking performances and killer writing forms a shield against conventional wisdom and stereotypes. Very early on, we find out that Ruth has slept with her best friend’s husband. Most shows would label her the villain and give her the one dimensionality of a selfish ‘slut’. And she wouldn’t be a leading character in those shows. Instead, GLOW artfully reveals the emotional complexity at play, and keeps Ruth highly relatable. In short, they do what seems to be so hard for many shows (and movies): they make her a complex person. They also give her an equally complex nemesis in the form of her former best friend, Debbie, AKA Liberty Belle. Betty Gilpin gives an affecting and powerhouse performance that provides a searing counterpart to Brie’s drifting Ruth.

GLOW Debbie

Gilpin, owning it as Debbie

There are men of course, most primary of which are WTF podcaster Marc Maron, and former Veronica Mars star (Team Piz!) Chris Lowell. Maron excels as the seedy yet principled, abrasive yet vulnerable director of the show within the show, and Lowell delivers comedy gold as the moneyed producer of the whole thing. Both stand out, which is impressive considering they are surrounded by fourteen of the finest actresses on TV right now.

GLOW robot

Maron, Lowell, and a robot. It’s the 80s.

In short, GLOW is perfect, we need season 2, and we must bow down to Kohan and her writing teams for bringing forth two such complex and mighty female ensemble shows, in the same month, no less.

Let’s be honest: The world needs more powerhouse female ensembles, both in TV shows & movies, and in front of & behind the camera. They’re good for everyone: Great actresses want to work with other great actresses, we all want to watch amazing performances and extraordinary characters and relationships, and TV outlets need the immense ratings that ensue. Everyone wins.

We need more. Let’s make it happen, Hollywood.

 

 

 

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SouthLAnd’s day of Reckoning

Nothing will ever be the same.

The beginning of the end

The beginning of the end

As season five drew to its genuinely shocking close, the dread that had been building throughout the episode — throughout the season — exploded. It has been the season of John Cooper, played with certified Emmy magnificence to the end by Michael Cudlitz. In effect, he shouldered the entire season like a modern day Atlas, and it was on his tired, weary face that the existential pain of being alive was etched in ever deeper lines as the episodes rolled by. In Reckoning, his agony became complete.

This episode was, without a doubt, SouthLAnd‘s finest moment.

It was expertly scripted by the extraordinarily intelligent Jonathan Lisco, the former lawyer/NYPD Blue writer who has found his true calling with this show. In person, he’s an erudite, precise conversationalist; his scripts feel that way too. The language is honed with the highest skill; whether it’s violent interchanges or quiet interludes, jokes or grief, if you look at his scripts line by line, they are masterpieces of elegance and seamless construction. Nothing is wasted; nothing is uneven. Everything, as Thom Yorke once sang, in its right place.

Reckoning was the best Lisco script yet (despite its lack of Nicki Minaj references). He gave us the final stage of Cooper’s descent into hell, knocking away each and every crutch and support one by one, until the final, most devastating blow of all: Laurie didn’t want to have children with him anymore. The episode was peppered with references to Cooper eating a gun, losing it, disintegrating: in classical Greek style the tragedy wended its way ever closer. Darkness loomed. We just didn’t know how or when it would come.

Even as Lisco was laying down Cooper’s trajectory, he was giving us beautiful (in the mathematical sense as well as the emotional) resolutions to the other two components of SouthLAnd‘s character triptych: Sherman/Bryant, and Adams.

Lydia’s resolution was a nice grace note amidst the darkness: the ever-rumpled Tom Everett Scott returned as Russell Clarke in the last few episodes, and seeing the two of them find their way to a tentative, possible happy ending has been an unexpected pleasure, and yes, in that final, beautifully shot scene on the beach, heartwarming. This is not an adjective I’ve ever used in five seasons of writing about this show, but, of course, they fully earned it, playing out the scene just right, just so. It was a lovely payoff to a relationship that we’ve been feeling and possibly hoping for since the pilot. Regina King and Scott were perfect, and their natural chemistry just flowed.

A rare moment of peace and beauty

A rare moment of peace and beauty

Heartwarming resolutions were in short supply in the other major arc.

The Sammy vs. Ben showdown has been played out so well throughout the season. Ben crossed the line last season in God’s Work, Risk and Thursday. That gave the writers a great platform from which to just f**K with the Ben and Sammy dynamic in season five, and they did a tremendous job with the story they chose: Ben’s complete amorality allowing him to believe that having Chris break into Sammy’s house and tag it with gang signs while stealing the tape was a genuinely okay thing to do.

Can of whup-ass that's about to be opened: not pictured.

Can of whup-ass that’s about to be opened: not pictured.

Spoiler: it wasn’t.

When it came, the storm broke in spectacular fashion. Sammy finally worked it out, and confronted Ben in a tense, fraught, emotional and heartbreaking scene outside the hospital, which ended with a hyper-intense all-out brawl between the two of them. “We were partners,” Ben yells. “That’s right,” spits Sammy. “Were.” And he walks away.

The terse economy of Lisco’s script gave Ben McKenzie and Shawn Hatosy their finest, most accomplished performances of the show to date, in all five seasons.

It's about to be so over

Get ready

The betrayal of trust between these two men who should be brothers, having each other’s back, was devastating. McKenzie was so controlled, giving us Ben’s collapsing emotional world within an intense, desperately holding on performance. Hatosy brought the De Niro/Penn intensity, letting it twist his features as it steadily boiled up from within until he was consumed with heartbreak and rage. Their acting was like f**king opera, man. I bow down to the pair of them: they are two of the finest actors working today. Absolutely extraordinary. That clanging sound you hear is me dropping names: when I hung out with them last year in LA, they were completely relaxed, genial, down to earth, but completely passionate about this show. They transformed their souls for these performances; turned themselves inside out in the way that only truly great actors who trust the material and their director can do.

Their director: Chris f**king Chulack, man. Wow.

He grew up in the shadow of Dodger’s stadium; he knows Los Angeles like few others. Listening to him talk about shooting on the streets of LA is fascinating. It’s no coincidence that SouthLAnd has been the only show on television to, amongst all its other achievements, give us the true fabric of this great city.

Chulack took the show airborne

Chulack took the show airborne

No one shoots LA like Chulack with DP Jimmy Muro at his side. No one. He’s one of my favorite directors, and I am including movie directors on that list. He shoots unflinchingly, architecturally, fluidly, sharply; in the edit, he cuts the episode deep, down to the bone.

Chulack has directed some of the best episodes of TV drama; so when I say this was a career best for him, please see it in that context. It really was a phenomenally directed episode. It layered in the three arcs (tragedy, showdown and possibility), dovetailing them tightly in a way that rushed us forward before we were ready. Because we were never really ready; none of us wanted this thing to end. But it powered its way through the shortest seeming hour in history, even with those extra two minutes.

And it had to end.

None of us were ready for how.

Spoilers.

Cooper’s hellish horror-scape of a season reached a terrible peak in Chaos, as he watched Lucero get executed while they were cuffed together. All Cooper had left was the hope of a child. And Lisco (and the writers room) took that away in Reckoning. They took it all away. They stripped down Cooper’s emotional machinery until he was a wreck of car with no wheels, axles propped up by bricks. He had nothing left. The signs all seemed to point to suicide, and the writers really played this one out in the most close to the line way they could. It seems inconceivable that Cooper didn’t know what he was doing when he refused to throw the gun away in that final scene, instead swaying up to his feet, gun waving. How could he not know they would shoot him? We’ve seen it mentioned before, suicide by cop: wave a gun and wait for them to fire. But… but… he was in the killing rage, red mist clouding everything: sound and visuals were hazy, slowed down, disorientating. Maybe he was on his way to putting his hands up in the air.

A decision is about to be made...

A decision is about to be made…

We may never know. That’s the beauty of SouthLAnd.

Instead, (depending on how this cliffhanger plays out) we might just be left with the memory of Cooper, an extraordinary cop, played in the most grounded, compassionate way by Cudlitz. Has anyone ever done more to earn an Emmy? I don’t think so. Cudlitz has proven himself to be the soul of the show this season, the guardian of all that it stands for. To see his portrayal of Cooper’s helpless descent into loneliness, depression, hopelessness, and then, finally, the heart-rending breakdown of his command presence; it’s been revelatory acting. I’m going to miss Cooper.

There may be no more “hey numbnuts.”

Shit.

Cudlitz did groundbreaking work this season: Emmy better reward him.

This is a possible eulogy for Cooper (those were pretty serious gunshot wounds, but to quote Rob Thomas, there’s dead, and then there’s TV dead). He was one of TV’s most iconic, epic characters. One of TV’s most essential characters. But I don’t want this to be a eulogy for the show; I fully believe it will come back for a sixth season, if not on TNT, maybe on another network like FX or AMC.

I don’t want this show to go.

It means a huge amount to me. I’m not exaggerating — not even a bit — when I say it’s changed my life. It was the spark and the ignition for my TV scriptwriting. It showed me how to write TV scripts; how to tell stories in the most real and most stripped back way; how to create characters that live and breathe and are real. It’s taught me so much, and everything I’ve learned from writing scripts has deeply influenced the way I write my novels. Now everything I write is, I hope, SouthLAnd-style; it’s the standard I aim for, even if I don’t always get there, it gets me further than I would have otherwise. It’s led me to Los Angeles; to meetings with film companies; to an extraordinary hour and a half sitting at a bar having a brilliant conversation with Cheo Coker and Cudlitz. It’s given me amazing experiences. It’s brought me friends (Deb, Bill, Lisa and others).

From the opening shot of the pilot I was hooked; by the time they played the National’s Fake Empire in the final scenes, I was in love with the show. It’s only gotten more intense.

I’ve never been so emotionally attached to a show; so, no, I don’t want it to end. None of us do.

All we can do is let TNT know, keep sending the message.

And keep praying that for SouthLAnd, this isn’t end of watch.

SL R Dewey

SouthLAnd “The Felix Paradox”: Blue Angels

The Felix Paradox was an unusual episode. It had stunt casting (Shaq), genuinely delightful surprise casting (Russell’s back!), and multiple muscularly handled game changing moments for virtually all of the characters. Yet, perhaps paradoxically, it felt somewhat insubstantial.

One of the key reasons is this: everything else in the episode was dwarfed by Jamie McShane’s towering, gut-wrenching, why-isn’t-he-a-regular-yet, performance. Not even Shaq could rise up to that challenge.

Jamie McShane. Emmy not pictured.

Jamie McShane. Emmy not pictured.

McShane has been grittily brilliant in every episode to date, always breaking out of his all too brief screen time with charismatic and intense acting. Full disclosure, I have met him, and he’s a great guy in person; long overdue an iconic episode like this one. Aaron Rahsaan Thomas wrote this episode, his second of season five. It didn’t blast away like his first, but man was it good, and it gave McShane the arc he needed to really let loose: the watch commander had to hold it together after being told that his son had been shot. In several key scenes, McShane broke our hearts. Again and again and again. The initial breakdown; the barely holding it together in front of the cops at roll call, before crumbling and having Cooper take over for him; then the utterly heart-rending scene when Lydia handed Hill his son’s belongings from the crime scene. The way McShane told Thomas’s beautifully written Blue Angels story was just too much; too painful, too raw. 100% SouthLAnd style. It was epic. It must surely guarantee McShane a promotion to regular status, if, no, WHEN, the show gets its sixth season. C’mon, producers — you found a way to get Lydia into uniform; you can find a way to get Hill out on the streets. The campaign starts here.

Elsewhere, the show worked overtime to catch up with the other characters. Cooper had his moment with Laurie, when he finally accepted that he wanted a family; Cudlitz was charming and somehow heartbreaking in his quiet performance (coming as it did after that extremely empathetic and compassionate moment helping out Hill during roll call). Lucero was revealed to be lying about the fact that he has been separated from his wife for eighteen months (a smallish revelation for a new character, which didn’t really register, although it was written well, and perfectly acted by Anthony Ruivivar). Lydia had to throw down with Ruben over whether to pursue crooked cops in a nicely written and portrayed arc.

But the most interesting moments were saved for Sherman and Bryant.

You gotta hand it to Thomas; he can lay down classic scenes in old school SouthLAnd style, and they’re an absolute pleasure to watch unfold. The way that Bryant and Sherman’s pivotal scene started with them leading a lost little girl back to her house, featuring some truly great humor (“I’m contact, you’re cover…”), then segued into a tense search of the house and discovery of weapons and drugs, then escalated unstoppably into a dangerous screaming match between Sammy and the gangbanger — there was a real flow as it covered a range of emotions and styles — and it was a great head-to-head that never lost momentum. Hatosy was an ANIMAL in this scene, deploying the Prowl to full effect and then some. He’s been quietly intense this season; it was great to see him tear up a scene like this.

SouthLAnd: in your FACE.

SouthLAnd: in your FACE.

On the flip side, Sherman is f**king cold! What a devastating reveal that was, juxtaposing Sammy’s utter terror running through his gang-tagged house looking for little Nate, with the fact that Sherman was responsible (sending his girlfriend’s brother to steal the incriminating Tammi-Sammy fight tape). And it was all to save his own skin. Damn. Sherman is stampeding into a moral darkness from which it seems utterly impossible to return.

Sammy Bryant getting ready to go to war.

Sammy Bryant getting ready to go to war.

This revelation made Sherman’s reactions in the opening freeze frame more understandable. And it was a cool trick, returning to the opener right at the very end of the episode. The only issue was, we’d been waiting to find out what the hell it was all about in ever increasing anticipation and fear. Yet once we caught up and went past the photo flash… nothing happened. Sure, it was one of those internal ‘freight train coming at you’ moments; but the thing is, we’d already been through that collision. This was just the aftermath. The moments before the freeze frame promised maximum intensity; the reality was Sherman leaning against a wall.

Strong is the power of the dark side... seductive it is.

Strong is the power of the dark side…

I get it, and as a SouthLAnd ending, it was great; exactly what the show does best (the knowledge of just how far Sherman will go is terrifying, and a huge game-changer for him and therefore the show). But, oddly, although it was a perfect ending, it wasn’t a perfect return to the freeze frame; not when you’ve very clearly built expectations for some juicy tension and action.

This season as a whole, the opening/return to freeze frames have struggled with being as high impact as they need to be. This episode’s started as the strongest of the season to date; it just didn’t follow through on its promise. Which is a shame, as it was building on the biggest shift in the show this season; Sherman completing his descent into ice-cold amorality in stunning, shocking fashion.

This is a show designed to surprise, and that’s one of the many, many things we all love about it. This episode generally did a brilliant job of unleashing its truth grenades. There is no doubt, SouthLAnd is 100% uncompromising and 100% true to itself.

TV needs this show.

Random Witness Statements:

  • “Hiding in a closet, firing blindly… what kind of asshole does that?” / “A dead one.”
  • LAPD is the biggest gang in the city.
  • “We don’t fight fair, we fight to win.”
  • Tom Everett Scott back in the house! 
  • Surprised it’s taken five seasons to get a Crockett and Tubbs reference in there: great job, Aaron!
  • Cameron Duncan as DP, Stephen Cragg as director: great visuals, L.A. looked beautiful — loved Lydia’s Dodge Charger gleaming like a sci-fi spaceship.
  • “You will not embarrass me. I will f**k you up before that happens…” Damn, Annie Monroe. 
  • Blue Angels: devastating.
  • Seriously, make Jamie McShane a regular.

SouthLAnd “Bleed Out”: Cooper will stare you DOWN

Let’s just call this one Cooper’s episode, shall we?

From the photo flash voiceover (“John Cooper’s learned on the streets of Los Angeles, a single step can separate life from death”), through the heartbreaking and dumbass-related situations he had to deal with throughout the day, to the existentially painful confrontation with his former T.O. at the end, this was all about Cooper.

Cooper has a great bus-side manner

Cooper has a great bus-side manner

Michael Cudlitz was f**king amazing in this episode. He did the whole dryly amused thing in dealing with the S&M mishap (classic line from the perp: “my cuffs or yours”); he drew on some deep, quiet heartbreak in his conversations with the victim who got trapped under a city bus, and his face as he watched her getting pulled out was devastating; and he went to a dark, painful place deep within his soul in the scenes dealing with Gerald McRaney’s starkly downward spiral. I don’t think we’ve ever seen Cooper so depressed as he was when Dewey tried to cheer him up in the locker room towards the end. Cudlitz made us feel the epic gravitas of Cooper’s deep crisis; he gave it weight, and somehow made it calm on the surface while showing us the dangerous currents swirling deep down below.

Although nothing, I mean nothing, can compare to the sheer genius of what must be the most devastatingly epic “you’re a numbnuts” staredown that Cooper gave the cop who handcuffed a guy and put him in the back of the patrol car without realizing he had a gun.

Note to self: Cooper does not like being shot at.

This is clearly turning into the season of Cooper’s soul. And in fact, the season as a whole is going deeper into these characters and what makes them tick, what drives them, what can destroy them, or save them. It’s a more subtle, more novelistic season than the previous four. It’s peeling back the layers on our core cast like never before. Flaying them, actually; it’s as unmerciful as it sounds.

One by one, the characters are being relentlessly driven far beyond their limits, into unknown territory for them. It’s dismantling everything they know about themselves, leaving them uncomfortably adrift in unfamiliar waters.

Shawn Hatosy is back in full angsty Sean Penn prowl mode as Tammy’s assault charges keep on rolling forward. She’s driving Sammy crazy and utterly messing with his head, just like she always has; only now, it’s sabotaging his ability to work, and blurring his moral lines, to say the least. Hatosy has been great this season, bringing bite and punch to Sammy’s scenes, giving us a compelling portrait of a man in crisis.

Sherman is continuing on his “a-hole trajectory”, somehow managing to get worse in every episode. His absolute amorality is amusing, though; starting the episode in the shower with one woman, and ending it in a different shower with a different woman, definitely shows his impressive commitment to being a dick. And the way he’s backing up Sammy one minute, reaming him out the next for depriving them of glory, then being all condescending and forgiving him… Sherman is in many ways struggling with who he is and what kind of cop and person he wants to be (he’s embracing the dark side, but one wants to believe it’s costing him). Ben McKenzie is as excellent as ever, and has found ways to shade in new, sharper details in his fearless and uncompromising portrayal of Sherman. McKenzie is a fantastic actor, and this role has been perfect for him. He makes Sherman’s unpleasantness utterly fascinating and compelling.

Regina King brought the despair nicely in this episode, dealing with a case that essentially played out her worst nightmare as a new mom. King was hypnotically distraught and flayed bare, while still keeping Lydia’s steely exterior mostly in place. Her performance was soulful and haunting.

Adams confronting her fears

Adams confronting her fears

Chad Feehan’s script (another debut this season) did a nice job of playing out these scenes of subtle heartbreak (while peppering the episode with some killer one liners), and Chris Chulack directed with a raw yet minimalist power. He unleashed kineticism when necessary (in the car chase, and Sherman’s fight scene), and stayed below the radar the rest of the time, presenting the scenes in a disturbing but SouthLAnd-style unflinching way.

Overall, the episode didn’t fully pop the way this show can (we’ve seen a husband/nanny story told more vividly and soulfully on the show last season, for example, and I know that wasn’t the point of this particular storyline, but it played a big role). However, this was supposed to be a deeper, more soul-searching episode, and in that respect, it delivered and then some.

Random Witness Statements:

  • “Tend to your cactus, man. Rent a musical, do what you do…”
  • “While you were f**king cheerleaders in the bleachers, I was on the streets.”
  • Don’t get the bus in L.A.
  • “Let’s go, P2.”
  • Tommy Howell nailed it as Dewey, again; it was frankly disturbing to see him so subdued; his scenes with Regina were flawless.
  • Sammy and the camcorder: a great SouthLAnd final scene.

SouthLAnd “Under The Big Top” — the greatest show on Earth

SouthLAnd‘s fifth season is shaping up to be its most ruthless and pared down yet, and therefore its most emotionally thrilling.

Everything changes

Everything changes

Under The Big Top was a Sara Gran script, with her distinctive brand of humor and sharp, on the spot character moments. Behind the camera, Felix Alcala brought his aggressive, restless visual style, aided by Dana Gonzales’ impeccable lighting. They made Los Angeles look visceral and amazing, in a clear-eyed, haze-free way this time. This is a show that can occupy different places on its unique viusual spectrum — this episode was all about the middle of the day/late afternoon clarity of the city. It was a particularly great episode for locations that added new dimensions to the scenes, something SouthLAnd excels at. The scene where Cooper and Lucero find a murder suspect and his girl, shot on the other side of the 101 from the Capitol Records building, with the downtown skyscrapers behind them: the light, the traffic, the architecture — it was a passing moment in the script (and a great character moment between Cooper and Lucero), given a kinetic depth by the shooting, framing and editing. This show carves its truths out of the LA landscape with ease.

Incredible shot from Alcala and Gonzales

Incredible shot from Alcala and Gonzales: the detail, the depth of field, the scope and focus of it…

It was a Cooper-centric episode, appropriately, given the title, and his tendency to see the job as one big circus. He had happy moments, tender moments, lonely moments, self-reflective moments, courtesy of Gran’s lovely and understated script. It was a great emotional episode for Cudlitz, who just crushed it in every scene with so much nuance and gravitas and soul. My personal favorite Cooper moment? “Maybe the right one stays.”

On the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, Sherman was still busy shedding his humanity and switching off his ability to care about anyone he deals with on the job (unless that person is Annie Monroe playing a teacher with a pleasing amount of snark, holding her own in every scene).

Relationships, SouthLAnd style: McKenzie and Monroe. Banter not pictured.

Relationships, SouthLAnd style: McKenzie and Monroe. Banter not pictured.

Ben McKenzie is doing truly fantastic work this season, with his almost terrifying transformation from the new boot who couldn’t stop caring, to the hulking, experienced officer who beats the shit out of a perp on a subway train in front of horrified passengers (to be fair, the guy was trying to kick Sherman’s ass, so Sherman knocking him out wasn’t entirely uncalled for). That scene was pure SouthLAnd — rationality and order descend almost instantaneously into utterly visceral violence and chaos. The stunt team are legends, and the entire cast and crew always make these scenes look horribly, breathlessly real. The way McKenzie just sat down in a nearby seat after cuffing the now unconscious criminal, waiting for the next stop, without saying anything to the other passengers, spoke volumes (Seth Cohen was right, he can say SO MUCH without even speaking)(Sorry for the OC reference, but Cohen nailed it — McKenzie is getting Brando-like in his intensity and wordless stares, hollowed out like he’s at the end of Apocalypse Now).

Changing relationships

Changing relationships

So powerful is McKenzie’s performance, he’s actually out-prowling Hatosy in a lot of scenes, which is just what the scripts are calling for. Where once Sammy would have been the hero for caring about a young boy who’s a victim of the system (remember What Makes Sammy Run? A Coker script and one of the greatest episodes of the show), now he is outshined by the sheer magnitude of Sherman’s ruthlessness. Sammy almost seems out of touch in this new, more aggressive world, which is the world of season five (set in motion by the darkness at the end of season four).

The unforgiving glare of harsh truths

The unforgiving glare of harsh truths

The show evolves with each season, and it’s much rawer and more streamlined than ever.

It’s the one inch punch of TV drama.

Random Witness Statements:

  •  The guest stars are extraordinary. Every time.
  • “Maybe you should get a carpet.”
  • Alcala added to the show’s visual texture with his helicopter shots
  • “You got a dirty, dirty mind.”
  • The woman picking up the money in front of Sherman after the train fight — the perfect coda to the scene
  • “For such a genius, you’re awfully handcuffed.”

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.

Anticipating SouthLAnd Season 5

Rewatching SouthLAnd‘s great and groundbreaking season 4 got me thinking: where could or should the show go in season 5?

In the SouthLAnd, anything can happen

It’s a show that thrives on evolution, after all. In a Doctor Who kind of way, it regenerates with every season. And it does this boldly, fearlessly… SouthLAnd style. From Wednesday to Thursday (Jonathan Lisco’s rather brilliantly low-key titles for eps 1 and 10), the show took some pretty hardcore narrative leaps, and went to darker places than ever before. It was more distilled, its signature intensity crystallized into something even harder and more beautiful. It’s made up of shards that are brutally sharp and reflect the light, sometimes blindingly. I mean this narratively, visually, emotionally, psychologically. I was thinking to myself, how could they possibly do this again, but better, take it further, in season 5?

Then I realized.

The answers lie in what for my money were the two greatest episodes of season 4: Integrity (ep 6, wr. Jonathan Lisco, dir. Chris Chulack, DoP Jimmy Muro), and God’s Work (ep 8, wr. Cheo Coker, dir. Guy Norman Bee, DoP Dana Gonzales).

These two eps broke new ground, pushed the show further and harder: Integrity Check was a new kind of television, using the documentry crew device to access new depth and force, while God’s Work hit hard with powerful soulfulness. They both showed how SouthLAnd can do what it has always done: evolve yet again, and continue to stay hungry and focused.

How, I hear you ask!

I’ll tell ya.

It’s pretty bold though. Fair warning!

One element that the show did seem to struggle with in season 4, and it was really the only element, was integrating the detectives’ storylines fully. That is, making them relevant to the episode in general, and also making them resonant with what was going on in Lydia and Ruben’s lives. It didn’t happen often, but there were a couple of episodes where they seemed detached from the rest of the show, and even from the crimes they were investigating.

But in episode 6, Lisco did something brilliant. He put Lydia back in uniform, back in the patrol car.

Lydia Adams… a future in uniform?

Genius.

What if for season 5, they shifted entirely to patrol officers — and hold up all you angry Regina King fans, I totally mean that she should be one of them! If you look back, there seems to be an irresistible gravity pulling the show in that direction. One by one the detectives transfer out (of the force, of life… RIP Nate). And the show has already shown us that Lydia can handle a uniform and patrol car. It may be crazy, but it might just supercharge the entire season. And I know who I’d want to see Regina King in the car with; I’m sure we all have some good ideas about that.

Integrity Check was a stripped back and raw episode, a more intense, enhanced version of the show that I believe should be the template for season 5. Chulack and Muro took full advantage of the brilliant device of the documentary film crew to really push things forward visually and directorially. Just look at the depth of field and incredible detail of the precise shot composition below — think of that as an analogy of how the storytelling could accommodate a narrower focus:

Cudlitz, Liu, and some gorgeously detailed depth of field… Kudos to Muro & Chulack

But this is a show that thrives on diversity and balance. Underlying its surface immediacy and intensity are deep, soulful grooves of emotion and desire; the overwhelming force of what it means to be human. This show, more than any other, is utterly rooted in character. And God’s Work was the prime example of that.

Michael Cudlitz, Lawrence Gilliard Jr, and about a thousand lens flares courtesy of DoP Dana Gonzales

Coker’s wonderful script was elevated by some of the best directing in the show’s history courtesy of Guy Norman Bee, with Dana Gonzales shooting it all in a combination of a golden hazes and harshly desaturated glares… both reflecting the soul of Los Angeles, and of the show.

Shawn Hatosy and Ben McKenzie in a beautifully directed (and acted) scene

Although I’m proposing a detective-free next season, I must point out that God’s Work was the perfect and best example of how to pull patrol officers and detectives into one powerful, cohesive episode (which should be no surprise since Coker wrote it; he was the first and only writer to pull the entire original cast into one scene in Punching Water). But we could think of it as a goodbye… the best example of integrating the show’s dual levels, and the platform from which everything changes.

Can the show be soulful without detectives? It can. It just has to bring that soulfulness in via more focused means. Regina King’s eyes, Muro’s and Gonzales’ lighting, the brillliance of Lisco’s ideas, the ferociousness of Chulack’s directing, and the brilliance of Guy Norman Bee’s helming.

And, of course, the incredible, peerless cast.

I loved the show when it had the full cast spread out over patrol and detective work, but I’ve loved it even more as it became streamlined, faster-moving, more raw. I know whatever direction the writers and producers take it in, I’ll continue to love it. I can’t wait to see what they come up with, because from writers to producers to cast to crew, this is the best team in the business. They’ve earned our trust and loyalty a thousand times over. These are just the humble musings of a fan; I don’t doubt for a second that wherever the producers choose to take us, season 5 will be utterly surprising, and utterly brilliant.