SouthLAnd: Chaos

Chaos was outstanding.

Simply put, it was one of the great episodes of this series. With Zack Whedon scripting and Chris Chulack directing, we were in the hands of two masters, who brought us one of the most focused, tense, terrifying and shocking episodes of SouthLAnd we’ve ever seen.

This is what happens when a show is made by such a phenomenal cast and crew: they can refine and redefine their format and still end up with a stunningly powerful piece of drama. With Chaos, they took the show’s prime directive — existing in the moment — and expanded one situation to fill the entire episode, pulling all of the characters into its vortex, and taking it to its most existential and horrifying extreme.

The episode was loosely inspired by the Onion Field event of 1963, in which two LAPD cops were kidnapped while on patrol; only one made it back alive. Of course, the writers room incorporated some of the elements of the real case, and changed/added many others. From here on out, there will be spoilers. Although it’s no spoiler to say that this episode was the most stripped back, brutally raw and head-spinning episode that SouthLAnd has ever produced.

Zack Whedon, who delivered an extraordinary SouthLAnd debut script with Off-Duty earlier in the season, returned to deliver a script that demonstrated extraordinary mastery of the form. The opening freeze -frame narration and action hit hard. The first few scenes did a tremendous job establishing a depth and complexity to Cooper and Lucero’s relationship, with Cooper finally getting sick of Lucero’s homophobia, and dealing with it by inviting him to a gay bar. The arc of awkwardness seemed to be heading into a new understanding between them, until Lucero’s true feelings exploded, demolishing the goodwill between them. The next day, when they respond to an unknown trouble call (has SouthLAnd‘s M.O., unknown trouble — the title of the pilot — ever been more vividly expressed than in this episode? I think not) involving a couple of whacked out junkies who look like they just escaped from the set of Deliverance, they’re not talking to each other.

And then they get taken.

Beaten.

Their belts and uniforms removed.

Handcuffed to each other in the back of a pickup truck headed somewhere unknown.

Whedon set this up perfectly and executed it flawlessly, launching us into the rest of the episode, as Cooper and Lucero get taken into hell.

Taking characters into hell just happens to be SouthLAnd‘s specialty; all drama attempts it — SouthLAnd masters it. So it’s surprising for me to be able to say that with Chaos, Whedon supersized this tendency. I don’t think anyone on the show has been through as much as Cooper and Lucero. And Whedon’s script just kept turning the screw, tighter and tighter, until tension was at an all-time, fever-scream high; the atmosphere more taut and terrifying than it has ever been on this show. By the time one of the rednecks casually executes Lucero, our nerves were already shredded and screaming; that shot to the head tipped us over the edge.

Chris Chulack directed; I’m not sure any of the show’s other directors could have done it. Just as the script was savagely to the point, so the direction was ferocious and visceral. Painfully, unbearably so. Chulack went hard at this episode, finding new angles and a new level of immediacy; given that the show is the most immediate, in the moment show on television, this is a remarkable achievement. Chulack effectively handcuffed us to Cooper and Lucero, and didn’t let us escape. Bastard. It was breathless, horribly raw TV. So much shouting, so much screaming, so much pain, and it was all directed with nerves-flayed-bare minimalism by Chulack. When the rednecks drag off Lucero to cut off his tattoo (yep), Lucero’s screams were godawful. Chulack’s camera followed them down the hall and into the bathroom, showing just enough of what they were about to do, before the door shut and the camera went back to Cooper, giving us his reactions to the terrible screaming from the bathroom. This is highest level directing.

Even given the brilliance of the writing and directing, the episode couldn’t have worked, and was really all about, two men: Michael Cudlitz and Anthony Ruivivar.

As Lucero, Ruivivar had a very difficult job to do in the episode; taking his character through some difficult social situations and unpleasant behavior, before making us empathize with the extreme torture and breakdown that he ends up enduring. Ruivivar was exemplary here, in all those scenes, finding the humanity in Lucero, and the soul in his portrayal of a man facing death. It was a bravura, intense and exhausting performance, played with compassion and depth throughout. He’s been a great addition to the show, bringing a new energy to it, and being a great acting partner for Cudlitz; their dynamic was always entertaining and interesting.

Speaking of… Okay, it’s true that Cooper didn’t get shot in the head. But DAMN SON. He is having the WORST season. It’s been a long, cruel, devastating nine episodes for him. He’s faced darkness, stared into the abyss. He’s faced terrible cruelty and violence and sadness. He’d just found himself in a more stable place, having made some key decisions in the previous episode, decisions that should have set him on a path to a more comfortable, fulfilling life.

Then Whedon and the writers room really f**ked his shit up. Cooper will not escape the effects of this episode lightly. Being cuffed to man when that man gets shot in the head by insane junkies is impossible to recover from. This really has been the season of Michael Cudlitz. He has portrayed Cooper with towering empathy, compassion, intensity and presence. He’s given us Cooper’s pain, knowledge, power, vulnerability, warmth, sarcasm and wit with extreme gravitas. And with this latest episode, which ended with Cooper crushed, broken, destroyed, curled up on the cold nighttime concrete of a gas station forecourt, disintegrating into debilitating sobs, Cudlitz must, SURELY, have guaranteed himself an Emmy. Throughout the ordeal, Cudlitz portrayed something that must be incredibly difficult to do: balancing Cooper’s heroism and relentless determination to survive, with the gut-churning, all-consuming horror and fear that kept exploding. Incredible.

Even with the singular focus of the episode, the script still found time to nudge the Sammy/Sherman partnership closer to its inevitable apocalypse. Sherman’s horror when he saw his girlfriend’s brother wearing Sammy’s jacket (stolen when the guy broke into Sammy’s place last episode) was a great moment. Especially since Sammy was standing right outside the house. And the way that their chase of Stroke-Face ended with the gangbanger falling from several floors up in a construction site and getting grotesquely impaled was a violent reminder of the increasing intensity of the consequences of Sherman’s actions. The final episode of the season (THE SEASON NOT THE SERIES) promises much: the end play of Sherman vs. Bryant, and the massive, citywide manhunt for Cooper’s kidnappers.

The show hasn’t punched its full weight 100% of the time this season, but it is ROCKETING to an extraordinary conclusion. And in many ways, it is far stronger in its fifth season than ever before. Very few shows can remain so powerful after five seasons; SouthLAnd is one of the few, and it has made it very clear: season six will be insanely great.

Random Witness Statements:

  • Zack Whedon has earned his stripes in record time this season.
  • How incendiary is the Sherman/Bryant showdown going to be? 
  • Cudlitz. Emmy. Now.
  • Ben McKenzie and Shawn Hatosy are such fantastic actors. They have been more on the periphery this season, but you wouldn’t know it from their intensity, presence and powerhouse performances.
  • Lydia and Russell FTW.
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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 “Heroes”: What did Cooper say?

This was a BRUISING episode of the show. It took your emotions and kicked the shit out of them with a cold, quiet ruthlessness; it made you lean in, then slammed your head into the emotional walls it built up through the hour. Thanks for that, Heather Zuhlke!

Zuhlke wrote some of the most brutal and devastating lines I’ve ever heard on this show (or on any show), and they were all reserved for Michael Cudlitz’s scenes.

Cooper is having the WORST season. I mean, his life is barreling down into an emotional abyss that I’m not sure anyone could claw their way out of. This episode marked a new low point for him, as both his father, and his father figure, treated him in terrible and appalling ways. He’s having a bad year, you guys. He’s questioning everything about everything and not finding good answers. So when he digs DEEP and somehow, utterly heroically, dredges up the willingness to see his father (who raped and murdered Cooper’s girlfriend by the way) on his deathbed, and gets told by his old man, “I had to give her what you couldn’t… I’d rather see you dead than have a fa***t for a son,” you felt the bludgeoning cruelty of it, the jaw-dropping, stunning horror of what that must feel like to Cooper. Like an eighteen wheeler hidden in a whisper.

Cooper facing his demons

Cooper facing his demons

It was an extraordinarily written scene, but Cudlitz elevated it to a new, monumental level of quiet tragedy in his stoic, craggy reactions. Incredible acting there, but he wasn’t done yet. He still had to face the other father figure in his life. his former T.O., who is now falling to pieces.

Cooper’s final stop on his daily tour of emotional hell was to receive some more abuse from Gerald McRaney, who has been outstanding in his arc as the guy who taught Cooper everything he knows. McRaney has given a phenomenal series of performances that reached new heights in this episode, first with his drunken, bitter rage and physical abuse of Cooper, and much more so at the end, when he described the terrible loneliness of his existence, the meaningless of it all that was overwhelming him. “I don’t know how I got here” was a heartbreaking line, heartbreakingly delivered by McRaney, who turned this final few minutes into something raw and mesmerizing; it was Shakespearean in its quiet majesty. Jimmy Muro knew exactly how to direct this final scene: point the camera at McRaney, keep Cudlitz in shot, and let the acting masterclass from both of them just play out. In a lot of ways, this episode felt like a play, a classic two hander, thanks to the impact of that final conversation.

McRaney in full Shakespearean tragic mode; Cooper like a ghost in the background

McRaney in full Shakespearean tragic mode; Cooper like a ghost in the background

Not to neglect the rest of this fine episode, but, it all vanished in the wake of this final scene. Nothing could escape its gravity.

That said, there were some fine thematic elements resonating throughout the episode. Hatosy reading “Return Of The Caped Hero” to little Nate; Ruben’s daughter asking Lydia “question six”, which could basically be the subtitle for all five seasons of this show:

How do you not lose hope?

This is a show all about the struggle to keep hope alive. The characters fail and succeed in various ways. Cooper is failing right now. Sherman, on the other hand, has jumped into his personal darkness with no qualms. The death of hope has meant nothing to him — yet. He’s embracing the dark side, while Sammy is imploding under the weight of it.

It’s fascinating to see the writers subjecting their characters to such intense moral stresses. Cooper and Hatosy are true heroes; Lydia is a warrior; Ruben has a laid-back cool that allows him to navigate the horrors; Dewey… is Dewey. One has to wonder where the writers will leave Sherman: because so far, he is loving the freedom that comes from divorcing yourself from moral constraints. Thanks to Ben McKenzie’s fine acting, Sherman’s amorality actually suits him.

So, it was a dark night of the soul in the SouthLAnd this week. Characters are being tested in deeper and more destructive ways. It’s the most intense kind of drama there is.

Random Witness Statements:

  • Seriously, what did Cooper say?!
  • “You were like a god to me.”
  • “A bullet proof vest wears Chuck Norris for protection.”
  • Dewey vs. Dewey’s daughter: brilliant
  • “Tell Chick Baby you’re sorry…” Damn, Sammy!
  • “You walked on water, JC.” 

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 “Babel”: Fallback mode, just like the old days

With the third episode of this fifth season, SouthLAnd took it to another level.

With first-timer (to the show) Aaron Rahsaan Thomas’s emotionally scathing script imbuing an aggressive new style with a classic old-school feel, and Jimmy Muro’s basically goddamn brilliant direction (and lighting), this was one of the great SouthLAnd episodes.

The script had some of Chitra Sampath’s anarchic humor (Bryant and Hatosy doing a hand-puppet show for first-graders), Cheo Coker’s pop culture style and graceful nods to the old ways (Cooper’s note-perfect conversation with his former TO), Heather Zuhlke’s textural genius and Jonathan Lisco’s precise emotional scalpel. But this is not to say it was not original — it was. Thomas integrated everything that makes the show great and made it into something new: Babel was sharper, faster moving, more streamlined. His beats and scenes had a raucous, deliberately unstable energy. He nailed the inherent absurdity potential of life on the streets, and also the way that ridiculousness can tip over into gut-wrenching horror. Dewey’s boot nearly decapitating herself on a steel wire during a pursuit; the skateboard thugs vs. the old-timers; the hallucinogenic lemonade (really); the ongoing farce of Sammy and Tammi spilling over into real danger; the quiet, implacable horror of the shootings; the sadness of Cooper at the world maybe changing faster than he can handle. All those things flowed, smoothly, seamlessly, woven together by the overall chaos of LAPD dispatch being down. Communication was all over the place; the episode was perfectly titled.

It rocked on the page, and with Muro calling the shots, you know it rolled on the screen.

Shots fired

Shots fired

Jimmy Muro, man. What a legend. Not only is he a legendary DP who has worked with some of the greatest directors of all time on some of the greatest movies of all time  (Michael Mann’s Heat being a prime example), but he knows how to shoot the shit out of a script himself. Babel was his finest directorial work on SouthLAnd yet. It’s like he shoots in 3D — he adds a visual dimension that many directors miss. This was one of the most beautifully composed episodes in the show’s history. It was there when the camera was on Sammy driving, looking past him at Sherman on the passenger side, the depth of field through Sherman’s window — the sheer level of detail in the angles all the way into the distance was beautiful. It was present in the constant wheeling glimpses of the fortress LA skyline in the background of shots, the causal integration of the incredible architecture of the city.

Muro gets that LA skyline

Muro gets that LA skyline

Every scene was expertly staged and shot for maximum chaos and viscerality: the skate thugs scene was simple on the surface, but highly complex underneath. The car racing past and swerving within a few inches of Cooper on the street was an adrenaline-pumping second or two; it was brilliantly done — the scene just kept moving. Or in a simpler moment, when Lydia and Ruben were talking to the mother of the murdered kid (her third murdered child), Muro kept the camera focused on a picture of the three kids, while the principals in the scene were out of focus.

Genius in every shot. And that included the actors.

As always, the guest actors were phenomenal. The teacher coming on to Sherman, the old lady taking on the skate thugs; they, and the others, brought a tremendous realism  to every second they were on screen — they were (and always are ) one of the key components of the greatness of this show.

Annie Monroe likes what she sees

Annie Monroe likes what she sees

The core cast nailed it too. The shifting relationship between Bryant and Sherman is being portrayed with absolutely incredible acting by Hatosy and McKenzie. It’s a complex relationship, and they’re making us believe every up and down of it. Cudlitz was really great too. His emotional conversation with his former TO on the boat was a masterpiece of subtlety and nuance. Don’t retire, Cooper!

McShane and Cudlitz

McShane and Cudlitz

So, yeah, this was a kick-ass episode, up there in the pantheon of great SouthLAnd eps. And the preview for next week looked even more insane. Season Five is going from strength to strength.

Random witness statements:

  • It’s so great to have Tommy Howell as a regular
  • Can we get Jamie McShane promoted to regular too?
  • “I’m driving. I am contact.”
  • JIMMY MURO
  • Sometimes things get lost in translation — great opening voiceover.

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.