SouthLAnd: “Thursday” — Moment Of Truth

SouthLAnd excels at forcing its characters into moments of truth.

Time slows down and a crossroads opens up before them: will they walk the righteous path, or sell their souls?

This entire season, Officer Ben Sherman has been following a path that lead him to the deadly decision: what kind of cop is he going to be? Each choice he’s made so far has taken him deeper into the darkness. By the end of God’s Work, he didn’t recognize who he was any more. Without that self-knowledge, his moral markers were gone, and no matter how hard Sammy tried, Sherman really had gone past the point of no return.

And in this episode, writer Jonathan Lisco and director Chris Chulack went full Taxi Driver to make sure Sherman went all the way over the edge.

Lisco’s script was flint-sharp and ruthless. Always an extremely emotionally and conceptually precise writer, here Lisco was even more ferocious with his dialogue and action. Every line had urgency; every beat ratcheted you closer to the end. The scenes were sharpened to deadly points and lethal edges. Such was the intelligence underlying the script that by the time Lydia walked into that hospital room where the burned child lay helpless, no dialogue was even needed as Lisco and Chulack gave us one of the single most upsetting images we’ve ever seen on this show.

SouthLAnd will devastate you with an almost casual ease.

While Sherman was off choking hookers for information, Cooper had to endure Tang’s frankly unendurable “last day on patrol” smugness. Much as I can’t disapprove of any reference to Nicki Minaj’s far-too-awesome Superbass, it was tough to watch Tang torturing that kid. If ever a Cooper “hey numbnuts” was needed, it was here. Likewise with getting Cooper to take her picture in front of the Hollywood sign. So the showdown near the end where Cooper lost it on her was a great SouthLAnd moment. Cudlitz deployed his emotional gravitas to punishing effect, while Lucy Liu gave it right back — she has done a tremendous job this season, holding her own scene for scene with an unfussy, powerful, stripped-back performance.

It was an episode of heavyweight performances.

Regina King broke our hearts, again. She does it so well, so simply. “What we do, it’s hard enough to not let it get to you… now it’s like it’s going in too deep. And if it is, where’s it going?”

Shawn Hatosy did incredible, soulful work. Even confined to a hospital bed at the start, and a deckchair by the pool at the end, he harnessed his “raging bull” energy and radiated it throughout both scenes. I pointed out a few weeks back that Hatosy has a unique way of prowling around a scene with restless, hungry energy; as SouthLAnd superfan Deb @bluegrassbabe3 pointed out today, even when Hatosy is sitting down, he’s still prowling; such is his presence. He’s a great, great actor.

But there’s no doubt that the episode belonged to Ben McKenzie. His portrayal of a man whose soul is being steadily stripped away was bleak, raw, understated and unflinching. He showed us an officer who shattered his previous self, and now has to find his way through the fragments of what he used to be. By the time that the episode closed with Sherman sitting back at the pool party as the Stones’ Street Fighting Man played on the soundtrack (spot-on song choice, and only the fourth or so time the show has used a song), it was as though he was settling in to his new existence. I’m not sure what’s more terrifying/devastating — that he lost himself to the darkness, or that he’s actually getting comfortable with it. Either way, it’s brilliant writing, setting up some great Bryant/Sherman story possibilities for season five.

Throughout the episode, Chris Chulack directed with a ruthless eye, as Jimmy Muro gave us a bleakly lit, cloudy, steely L.A. Chulack’s visceral style was honed to an even sharper edge than usual. If Sherman went racing round a corner, the camera would steadily follow him, like a shark, deadly and unstoppable. Everything was stripped back to an absolute purity of purpose. There were no skateboarding interludes in this episode. Just a ferociously relentless commitment to the truth.

Which is what this show has always been about. It’s why we love it.

It’s why SouthLAnd is one of the greatest TV dramas of our time, of any time. It’s why TNT has to renew it for an extended season 5. It’s why Warner Bros. really, really needs to release a deluxe Blu Ray box set with extended directors cuts, commentaries from writers, cast and crew, behind the scenes and the like — trust me, WB and TNT, if that box set comes out in enough time for new viewers to watch all four seasons prior to the season five opening episode, your ratings will be extraordinary. Can you imagine The Walking Dead or Game Of Thrones or Mad Men not being on DVD?

Exactly.

It’s been an amazing season four. The writers, the cast, the crew — they’ve all excelled themselves, raising the bar yet again, like this show always does. SouthLAnd is better than its ever been — which is rare for a fourth season. It’s rolling hard. And it leaves no doubt that season five would be the greatest yet.

Thank you to everyone involved with the show. I was fortunate enough to meet the cast and crew in L.A. recently; they are an incredibly smart, humble, hardworking, talented bunch, all utterly commited to making this show the best on TV.

It’s working.

I can’t wait to to tune in next year and hear once more, this is A36, show us handling.

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SouthLAnd “Fallout”

SouthLAnd continued its peerless run of emotionally intense episodes with Fallout, dealing with the visceral disintegration of key relationships on the show. It could equally well have been called Things Falling Apart, because it was brutal like the Nine Inch Nails remix album, and in some ways the show is remixing itself, foregrounding its more emotionally violent elements. SouthLAnd has always  challenged its characters by pushing them beyond their limits and confronting their personal hells. In this episode, it did so in even more unflinching ways.

Certainties crumbled and trust imploded as the foundation-shaking earthquake of Etan Frankel’s script met Allison Anders’ up close and personal direction; and the actors served up raw, phsyical, wounded performances, finding a way to peel back yet another layer of emotional skin and reveal their hearts and souls.

Frankel, a former playwright and Friday Nights Lights writer, who also writes for John Wells’ other brilliant show Shameless, wrote a perfectly spare and forceful script. It laid out the cases with the minimum of fuss, and gave the actors an actors dream of gut-punching, soul-wrenching, no-going-back-from-that dialogue.

The visceral script was coupled with Allison Anders’ inspired directing style, which is all about making everything richer: the framing, the light, and the performances. She brought the camera in close to the actors’ faces, giving the actors more physicality than usual, bringing us closer to their pain, their seething rage, their exploding passions. Now, SouthLAnd is a show that is all about motion and kineticism, but Anders showed us that this isn’t always about the camera chasing after Sherman or Bryant. Here, Anders made the bold choice (in the context of this show) to frequently hold the camera still, very still, and let the actors play out their discomfort. It’s like Anders has her own zen martial art directing style: the kinetic scenes were brutal; but the stillness hit even harder.

The performances hurt, even more than usual. Frankel’s venomous script gave Ben McKenzie and Shawn Hatosy some painful, knife-twisting scenes. You truly felt Sherman’s growing frustration as he tried to make things up to Bryant after accusing him of being a dirty cop and facing Bryant’s almost showboating refusal to back down. But when Sherman dropped the Nate-bomb on Bryant, and told him that was the last apology he was getting… well damn son. That was extraordinarily awkward, deeply painful, and emotionally complicated drama, conveyed in true minimalist SouthLAnd style with a couple of perfectly written lines, some close-up camerwork, and unbearable intensity from both actors.

Even more intense were the scenes between Michael Cudlitz and Lucy Liu. Tang was having a very bad day, which got worse when she shot an unarmed suspect, and then tampered with the crime scene as Cooper showed up. Cooper may be flawed, damaged, full of demons, but he’s a damn good cop, and with exemplary cop’s instincts, he knew that Tang had been doing something she shouldn’t, something she didn’t even need to do. Lucy Liu did a tremendous job unraveling Tang’s tightly wired demeanor, and Cudlitz was fantastic as he wrestled with the no-win moral situation she had put him in, and then unleashed his fury on her after they’d both been questioned. Liu got a great coda, in which we saw her guilt and frustration blow up. And Cudlitz took every single viewer to the edge by making us utterly believe that he was about to start using again, when in fact he was meeting his sponsor for help.

Dorian Missick and Regina King had some soulful and compelling scenes, as Lydia still refused to admit her “condition”, even as Ruben showed his genuine, caring and supportive side. Frankel gave them some beautiful lines, Anders shot it in lovely fashion, and the actors were fantastic.

As everything falls apart, the show heads into its final three episodes of the season, beginning with episode eight, God’s Work, which features a Cheo Coker script directed by Guy Norman Bee. It promises to be an extraordinary continuation of the dark arcs that the show is playing out.

SouthLAnd “Community”: slow burn to inferno

One of the things that makes SouthLAnd so great is its evolving textures; the writers have their own styles within the framework of the show, as do the directors. This diverse community around the central heart of SouthLAnd makes for a show that always feels fresh, on the edge, unfolding in ways we can never predict. Much like life in L.A. Much like a typical day in the lives of our cops.

Scripted by Jason Horwitch, Community was lacerating in its compressed complexity, its compacted violence. Each scene was a one inch punch that rocked out of nowhere, on the count of one, not three, with Felix Alcala bringing a brawling, aggressive directing style to the episode, getting up in everyone’s face.

We all need to take a moment here to recognize the absolute genius of Alcala’s brilliant shot-framing. All the show’s directors are great, but Alcala went hard at this episode, making it raw and beautiful in savage ways. His camera prowled the over-saturated Los Angeles streets and skyline, framing the actors and their backgrounds with an unerring eye on the motion and composition of the shot.

The camera (and the show) was set to slow-burn throughout, until the final inferno with its magnificent, alien, sci-fi Jimmy Muro lens flares and complex visual textures. It was as breathtaking as the emotional turbulence of the scene itself. It brought to mind the devastating emotions and hypnotic lighting of the conclusion to last season’s Code 4, which Alcala also directed.

And then there was the acting. Man, the acting.

The day players in this episode were f**king amazing. Every single one brought a vivid, intense and painfully raw performance that fit the show perfectly. This was a Community full of extraordinary talent. It’s a credit to the skill and dedication of the casting team on SouthLAnd that every single person on the screen leaps off it with their performance. There was something special in this episode with those day players; maybe it was the script, or the directing, but this felt like TV drama in true 3D.

The core cast, of course, nailed it. They always do, but it should never go without saying; it takes a tremendous amount of talent and hard work to maintain that level of excellence. Ben McKenzie proved that if the actor is engaging and that much of a natural star, the writers can make the character that much more of a dick without ever losing the viewers; much like David Duchovny in Californication, McKenzie’s easy charm brings the viewers back in even as his character continutes his steady descent into darkness. Special credit this week goes to Lucy Liu for her utterly perfect, low-key, lived-in naturalism. She’s integrated seamlessly into the show thanks to the truth she brings.

But MVP this episode was Regina King. Although Dorian Missick gave her a run for her money with his eloquently poetic performance as the father nervously rehearsing his daughter’s quinceanera speech, King’s near-silent performance at the end of their final scene in the episode was beautiful and moving. Especially in the light of the promo for next week, her reactions during and after Missick’s final lines were staggeringly, subtly great. It’s like there’s nothing, no human truth, King can’t convey with her eyes. She tells the truth so profoundly without even speaking. It was pure poetry as she listened to Missick, then pulled out her phone when he left the car, and made her call.

That’s what this show is all about: praise of the extraordinary. The extraordinary work that cops and detectives do every single day on the streets of Los Angeles, and the extraordinary work everyone in the cast and crew of this show brings to it week after week.

“Underwater”: SouthLAnd ain’t nuthin’ to f**k with

Cops routinely find themselves underwater… the undertow can be tricky.

“Underwater” was a powerhouse episode, full of beautiful interplay and texture, subtle dynamics, kick-ass set-pieces, and the constant, neverending threat of unknown trouble. Cheo Coker’s script floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee, with Coker riffing brilliantly on our beloved characters, firing off killer line after killer line like rounds from a Glock, nailing pop culture references, and diving into the complex motivations of why cops become cops, why cops stay cops, and how cops become the cops they’re meant to be, for better or for worse.

It was a classic script, full of scenes, lines and beats that punched their way off the screen. Whether it was Bryant calling Sherman “Captain save-a-ho”, or the running gag about the Mickey D’s application form, or Dewey’s glorious insanity, this was a script that ducked and dived, threw jabs, one-twos and combinations, and didn’t stop running until the FADE OUT. There were too many references and quotable moments to list here – I’d just be writing out the entire script if I mentioned everything that was awesome – but Coker blended pop culture (Rambo, The Walking Dead) with right-on-target real situations (Randy Simmons inspiring kids to be cops). If you had to pick the greatest single moment – and you could argue like 50 of them – for me it was Jessica Tang’s new nickname. As Cooper said it, “they call you Wu-Tang now… cuz you ain’t nothin to f**k with.”

We also heard the show’s statement of intent early on the in the episode: “we’re here to protect and serve… and kick ass.”

But this wasn’t just a funny episode, or a clever one; it went much further, much deeper. What this show does better than any other is push its characters way over the edge, challenging who they think they are, obliterating their belief systems, and testing their capabilities to the limit. This is what great drama consists of, and it’s a credit to John Wells and the entire SouthLAnd team that this takes place so naturalistically, so seamlessly. The actors rose to the challenge of Coker’s great character work, bringing to life the texture and dynamics on the page. Shawn Hatosy somehow gets more intense with every episode, channeling Brando, Penn, De Niro, but wearing it lightly, easily. Ben McKenzie is handling Sherman’s trajectory into a darker place with great skill and grace, playing his complexities perfectly and compellingly. Michael Cudlitz is the anchor, the rock; whether he’s delivering a beatdown or a wry grin, he brings the gravitas and the humor. Tommy Howell just kills it, every time, taking the messed-up twisted sickness that the writers throw at him and making it utterly engaging even as your jaw drops. Lucy Liu is a steely force to be reckoned with, and her chemistry with Cudlitz is perfect; she’s a truly integral part of the cast thanks to her subtle, minimalist approach. And you have to love Dorian Missick and Regina King. She’s as soulful and forceful as ever, telling the truth with her performance like an absolute virtuoso, while he plays out the questioning, troubled role of Ruben with great presence, hitting hard with a quiet power; they’re a great team.

And while Coker handled the words, and the actors brought them to life, everything was beautifully lit and framed by DP Jimmy Muro and director Nelson McCormick. SouthLAnd has always been a show about textures, specifically the textures of character and light. This was a stunning episode from that perspective, using Los Angeles to incredible effect, whether in street-level chases, or the massive Downtown skyline looming behind the patrol cops as they took a break. The scene where our four patrol cops kept watch on suspects on a street corner was masterfully shot, moving from the show’s signature saturated light to stark, silhouetted cars and officers, and back again.

This is a show that is made great by the dedication and commitment of every single person involved in its creation; it couldn’t be the greatest cop show of all time if that wasn’t the case. That care, that love, is present and evident in every moment on the screen.

Greatness is encoded into this show’s DNA. Whether it’s two detectives questioning the morality of their methods, four patrol officers remembering why they joined the force, or the shocking, visceral moments like the man on fire, this show is unbeatable, unstoppable, and unmissable.

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.