SouthLAnd: Graduation Day

And so, with a building, searing intensity, the final episode of SouthLAnd‘s season three roared to its emotionally explosive conclusion.

Such a bittersweet moment for fans and presumably creators alike. As the opening voiceover reminded us, sometimes you just have to make that leap. Throughout its two year, three season, 23 episode history, SouthLAnd has been fearless and unflinching, never hesitating as it ran over the rooftops of network and cable drama, fast, fitter, harder than the rest.

With Graduation Day, the show delivered astonishingly, beautifully, heartbreakingly, poetically and ball-bustingly on all the narrative arcs it had set up and laid down in the previous 22 episodes. Such relentless emotional follow-through is rare in TV drama. Comparing the events of the episode to the original pilot script, broadcast as Unknown Trouble, it’s an intense and moving experience to see how the show has so powerfully come into its own. It’s followed Ben Sherman from that terrifying first day, full of the unknown trouble of the title, through to his, and the show’s, graduation. Although Sherman has often been a quiet presence, SouthLAnd has always been powered by his story. Both Sherman and the show now stand on the edge of a new era in their existence. SouthLAnd has done a phenomenal job of maintaining its core truths while aggressively evolving within its world. Season three has seen the show expand, despite the budgetary hardships of the move to cable — it feels bigger than ever, and that is a testament to the extraordinary creative team, working harder and smarter than ever to deliver the best cop show of all time, and one of the undisputed, heavyweight greatest TV dramas I’ve ever seen.

What an episode it was. Part graduation, part commencement speech for the future. And lots of running. With a story by Heather Zuhkle, teleplay by John Wells, direction from Christopher Chulack, and eerie, beautiful, raw and hypnotic lighting from Jimmy Muro, Graduation Day was a full court press from start to finish. This season has showcased great and powerful writing and directing from Cheo Coker, Chitra Sampath, Allison Anders, Muro, and many, many others. But you have to bow down to the showrunners, the OGs: when John Wells and Christopher Chulack step up to the plate, they don’t f**k around. The pedal goes to the metal and stays there.

Whether it was bringing a season’s worth of crackling tension to an explosive conclusion as Lydia sparred against Josie about dating her son, or fulfilling the promise of the first season by having Sammy finally become a father (in messed up circumstances to be sure, but it’s him and Tammi, it couldn’t be any other way), Graduation Day handled its storylines and emotional arcs perfectly. It was great to watch Regina King play Lydia’s happy yet complex arc in this episode, creating one of the most enjoyable storylines of the show to date.

Most cathartic and showstopping of all of the narratives was the inevitable, long-awaited showdown between Sherman and Cooper, as Sherman finally, monumentally lost it on his disintegrating training officer. McKenzie and Cudlitz unloaded both barrels on each other for this scene, tearing the scene apart with their bare hands. McKenzie had some work to do. Following on from his bare knuckle rooftop fight with his suspect (one of the most painfully raw, real, intense and prolonged fight scenes we’ve seen on TV), McKenzie had to raise his game to take on the mighty presence of Cudlitz, formidable even when he has to play someone barely holding on. It was a great, classic scene, resonating with all the force of its two-year build-up.

Michael Cudlitz laid it down in this episode, anchoring the entire show with the craggy, iconic power of his performance. His acting ranged from intensely physical (his truly heartbreaking attempts to climb the ladder), to painfully intense (“I did f**king chase after you!”), to devastatingly quiet and detailed (saying “thank you” to Sherman; checking himself into rehab). Cudlitz stepped up to the plate and batted 1000. McKenzie delivered too: after three seasons of mostly having to repress his impulses, he finally got to explode with full force and authority, literally tearing Cudlitz up from the street and laying into him: “you’re a f**king goddamn useless training officer.” It was great f**king television.

It was a hell of a season for Sammy Bryant. Throughout it, Shawn Hatosy prowled like De Niro, tore it up like Sean Penn, and brought a restless, relentless energy to the role. He had some gruelling, raw scenes, and he gave them everything. Hatosy had a powerful, extraordinary season. This episode captured all of it. From the scenes in the delivery room, to the catharsis of seeing Nate’s killer die (“Nate Moretta, motherf**ker”), to the revelation that his newborn son was called Nathaniel, to his desperate look at the photo of himself and Nate, Hatosy took the outstanding scenes and beats given to him by John Wells and brought them to life with beautiful authenticity. It was heartbreaking. And it made his final scenes all the more bad-ass: as he walked out in uniform with his new partner, the one and only Ben Sherman, Hatosy showed us just how damn awesome season four is going to be as they trade the quirky streets of Hollywood for the tougher world of Alvarado.

In this final scene, we also discovered that Sherman has graduated nicknames, from Boot to Pup. Although Sherman must have felt like he was back at the start in some ways, that wry smile on McKenzie’s face in the final shot said it all: this shit is only going to get better.

As the show heads into its seemingly inevitable season four, one thing needs to be made clear: we need more Michael McGrady, C. Thomas Howell and Arija Bareikis! McGrady brought his customary presence and gravitas, backing it up this week with some heartfelt emotion, anchoring the scene with Sammy at the end with fatherly concern and genuine worry. Howell and Bareikis are great together, with snappy chemistry and a natural rhythm.

It’s important to take a moment here to acknowledge that this was the season Jimmy Muro came into his own, and brought the entire show with him. As director of photography, Muro did extraordinary things with light on this season, taking the show’s raw, kinetic aesthetic, and imbuing it with the otherworldly sheen of an ethereal sci-fi dream. And as director of two episodes (Cheo Coker’s Cop Or Not and Chitra Sampath’s Failure Drill), Muro unleashed his vision, creating haunting, complex visual textures that recalled Blade Runner and Star Trek with their deep ambient quality and mesmerizing lens flare. Muro is the master of that legendary Los Angeles light: dealing with it head-on in the show’s signature bleached-out, oversaturated glare, bringing in new visual grace notes by reflecting magic hour light on the downtown skyscrapers. Muro brought vital extra dimensions to SouthLAnd, creating yet another way in which the show effortlessly, quietly, almost imperceptibly differentiated itself from its peers.

At the time of writing, no announcement has been made by TNT about the show’s future. Renewal seems highly likely with the steady increase in ratings (Graduation Day being the highest rated of the season), and the sheer bench strength of the entire cast and crew. This is a brutally high quality production, and it deserves a long future. Finally, the awards have started coming to the show: Regina King recently and deservedly won the NAACP award for Outstanding Actress In A Drama Series — this must surely only be the beginning of a wave of writing, acting and technical awards for this peerless show.

All that remains is for me to say a heartfelt thank you to everyone involved in bringing this amazing show to our screens. It’s had a huge impact on me, on my writing and my life. It’s been an extraordinary ride so far, and all the elements are in place for SouthLAnd to take it to the next level in season four.

Until then, I’ll leave you with John Cooper’s words of wisdom:

“Look sharp, act sharp, be sharp.”

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Why TNT should give SouthLAnd a season 4

Readers of this blog will know how much I love SouthLAnd. A year or so ago, as TNT’s airing of the saved NBC season 2 episodes came to an end, I posted an article on why TNT needed to renew the show (here).

The time to call upon TNT to do the right thing has come around again.

TNT, you did an amazing thing rescuing the show from NBC and giving it a third season: please give SouthLAnd the season 4 it deserves, the season it has earned many times over through the extraordinary efforts and dedication of its entire cast and crew.

With Season 3 so far, SouthLAnd has exceeded what even its most loyal fans could have expected. Eight episodes into its ten episode arc, the show has handled with impossible ease its complex storylines, emotionally devastating arcs, biting humor, and desperate tragedy. All these elements are blended together in a light-on-its-feet but brutal style, shot with versatile RED One cameras and the incredible eye of DP Jimmy Muro, who has shown us a new Los Angeles, a city of bright glare, unforgiving streets, and the darkest shadows.

SouthLAnd is one of the WB’s finest ever shows, and this is due to the deep roll-call of high-caliber talent used in every aspect of the show. Creator Ann Biderman and showrunners John Wells and Chris Chulack (also a primary director) have done a fine job in selecting their creative line-up. There’s the extraordinary writing team of Jonathan Lisco, Cheo Hodari Coker, Will Rokos and Heather Zulhke. The brilliant regular directors Nelson McCormick, Felix Alcala, along with guest director Allison Anders, who did such a beautiful job with her episode “Sideways,” all of them ably assisted by the aforementioned Director of Photography Jimmy Muro, who himself directed Cheo Coker’s excellently written “Cop Or Not” episode.

Simply put, SouthLAnd has one of the greatest crews in television. And then there is the cast.

Initially, the show was understandably promoted around Ben McKenzie, fresh off his acclaimed role as troubled teen Ryan Atwood in The O.C. This was no disrespect to the other actors in the show, merely a useful way in the harsh economic reality of prime time TV to capitalize on McKenzie’s high profile. But as great an actor as McKenzie is (just watch his final scene in “Discretion”), this is an ensemble cast in the greatest sense of the word. In fact, as time has gone by, it has become clear that the entire roster of actors on the show are essentially the Yankees of one hour drama. Although TNT featured McKenzie in some of the season 3 promos with The O.C.‘s effective house band Death Cab For Cutie on the soundtrack, they have focused recent promos on the others in the show, primarily Michael Cudlitz, Regina King and Shawn Hatosy.

These three have torn apart the scenery this season, in the best possible way. While the sustained intensity of Hatosy’s raw, heartbreaking performance leads the pack in terms of likely Emmy or Golden Globe recognition, the incredible Regina King has proved herself to be the beating heart and powerful soul of the show, and Cudlitz has carved out one of the most iconic, complex and indelible cops in TV history.

With the budgetary restrictions of the move from NBC to TNT, SouthLAnd necessarily had to focus in on that smaller core cast. However, if you watch the show, you will see that every single person who shows up on screen has authenticity and compelling believability. It’s one of the show’s trademarks. It’s gritty and it’s real, and every moment counts.

The show’s more supporting roles are beautifully played (although every moment of this show plays like the A-story, and every player is treated like a lead actor). Michael McGrady delivers gravitas with routine ease as Hatosy’s boss. C. Thomas Howell is by turns hilarious and jaw-droppingly insane as perpetually troubled patrol officer Dewey. His beleaguered partner Chickie is played to perfection by Arija Bareikis. Jenny Gago has also been a great antagonist as Lydia’s new partner. There are many other fine actors and crew members, sadly too many to name here, but each and every one of them works incredibly hard to make this show as great as it is.

What all this translates to is a show that delivers devastating stories with absolute consistency week after week, while making you laugh, jump up from the edge of your seat, and, yes, cry. The cast and crew know exactly what they are doing: it’s no coincidence that the show’s most heartbreaking episode “Code 4,” the episode in which we lost the soulfully engaging Kevin Alejandro, was also its funniest. The blistering humor made the tragedy so much more difficult to handle. What we see with SouthLAnd is an extraordinary level of storytelling and directorial intelligence.

It’s rare to see this kind of perfect storm of network, cast, crew, locations and fans in television. We can only hope that TNT feels the same way, and gives SouthLAnd another full season with which to devastate and entertain us.

SouthLAnd: “if you love her, hold out”

“Even when cops do everything right, things can still go sideways.”

The show opened full throttle in the midst of a wild car chase, moving fast until Dewey and Chickie’s patrol car ploughed right into a pedestrian; and we stopped.

These flash forwards and freeze frames, SouthLAnd‘s unique signature starting points, have become an art form in themselves: that brief burst of critical action, accelerated then punched out as the images freezes, and the voiceover delivers the driving force behind the episode.

It’s the rush of the episode distilled into brutally compact form. A brutal street haiku, which essentially is what SouthLAnd is. The life of cops on the streets in highly charged shards of meaning; rushes of emotional, psychological and physical violence. At its best, the show is primal, relentlessly pursuing the truth of what it means to be human as though it was a fleeing suspect; one that the show captures every time. At its heart, the show is a stark look at humanity through the lens of the LAPD. It takes place in the bleached bright glare and the dark shadows of the city.

This week’s episode, Sideways, was in many ways classic SouthLAnd. The director, much respected indie helmer Allison Anders, did a beautiful job in capturing the starkness of the human drama, the simplicity of the high impact moments, and the contrast between oversaturated light and deep shadows that gives the show its visual and emotional texture.

Thanks to Anders, Sideways felt like a deeper version of the show. Assisted by regular DP (and last week’s director) Jimmy Muro, Anders crafted a heightened and more brutal version of SouthLAnd. Jonathan Lisco’s script delivered a precise distillation of emotional trauma and revelations that, although they were not shocking, were still heartbreaking.

From the opening, as Dewey and Chickie’s patrol car hurtled unstoppably into the pedestrian crossing the street, through Sammy’s steady, inexorable unraveling, to Lydia’s beautifully moving scenes with dying murder witness Henry Watts (subtly, fascinatingly and compellingly portrayed by Malcom Barrett), this episode came at you hard.

In previous endings this season, we’ve seen Ben Mckenzie’s Sherman break down with the shattering revelations from his mother, Michael Cudlitz’s Cooper delivering his primal howl of pain in the desert, Shawn Hatosy’s Sammy facing the end of his marriage, and the loss of Kevin Alejandro as Nate. In the frame this week for the total disintegration of everything they believed in: Detective Lydia Adams. By the time Russell delivered the news that we all surely already knew, Anders was expert enough to stop everything and just hold the close up on Regina King. We didn’t need the usual restless kineticism of the show anymore: we needed to be still, because everything was happening in Regina King’s extraordinary portrayal of Lydia’s reaction to her ultimate betrayal. While Shawn Hatosy has been manfully tearing this season away from his costars with a steadily building raw hurt intensity, Regina King took three minutes to take the show for herself. With her face filling the screen, King showed us in beautiful physical detail what it looks like when your closest friend tears your heart out.

King had already given us some wonderful work earlier in the episode with her moving and intense scenes with Malcolm Barrett, playing the witness caught in the crossfire of a parking lot shootout. Barrett gave a nuanced, vivid performance. At first, they flirted at the scene as Lydia worked him for information. Then, in true SouthLAnd style, we found out that “this man doesn’t have a concussion — he has a bullet in his head.” When Lydia rejoined Henry Watts, he was dying slowly, although he didn’t know it. They talked, in one of SouthLAnd’s most beautifully written scenes to date. Watts described falling in love with his fiance, who was on her way to the hospital, and even prompted Lydia to share her love history. By this time, Watts knew he didn’t have much time left, and he asked Lydia flat out, “would you go under the knife for the one percent chance at living, or try to hold out, to say goodbye?”

Sideways was one of the few episodes this season to feature everybody, and it was well handled by Lisco and Anders. Everyone had their moment. The always welcome Michael McGrady tried to keep Hatosy in check; Yara Martinez was beautifully understated and moving in her few scenes with Hatosy. Cudlitz and McKenzie continued to perfect their double act while dealing with rogue ice cream sellers, until they found themselves caught up in Dewey’s tragedy, while Arija Bareikis did some heartbreaking work as Chickie, dealing with the aftermath of the fatal accident.

Anders’ camera was restless throughout, frequently glancing up at the bleached-bone glare of the LA sky, or prowling close to the action. She did an awesome job with what she said on Twitter was her first ever car chase on film — you wouldn’t know it, because it was one of the most visceral, thrilling car chases we’ve seen on the show, right up to the fatal collision, and the subsequent near-shootout at the intersection of Yucca and Argyll, the Capitol Records building in the background. This sequence illustrated the way that SouthLAnd stays street level, keeping it fast-moving, real and detailed. Sideways was in some ways an emotional car chase that didn’t slow down until it was too late. By that point, Lydia was devastated, as were we. I hope that the show itself doesn’t stop, and accelerates into a fourth season and beyond. With “Live + 7” ratings of over 3 million and rising, the signs are good.

SouthLAnd: heart of darkness

Six episodes in, SouthLAnd isn’t letting up the pace: it’s only picking up speed.

Cop Or Not began with Lydia and Josie investigating a gruesome celebrity murder, while Cooper and Sherman and seemingly half the LAPD were forced to stand guard outside on a street full of celebrity addresses, warding off the paparazzi.

Cheo Hodari Coker delivered some of his finest writing in these scenes. He channeled his inner Tarantino by having the suspect, an actor, tell the detectives that he was starring in a Tony Scott remake of Shogun Assassin, and was being trained by Sonny Chiba. As a devoted believer in the fact that True Romance is the greatest movie ever made, I couldn’t help but love this. Sonny Chiba and Snoop Dogg references aside, this storyline was brutal, laying bare the dark glitz of Los Angeles, and showing us the reality of being a cop in the capital city of Celebrity. Cop Or Not was also notable for addressing the issue of Cooper’s sexuality for the first time since he came out to Ben: it did so in the subtlest way possible, just a brief shot of Cooper getting out of bed, leaving the man he’d spent the night with. The scene followed the SouthLAnd creed: no more, no less than necessary.

It was a strong, fast-moving episode. It hit the streets and ran hard, like Sammy in pursuit of his revenge.

“I’m back, m*therf*cker.”

There can be no doubt: this was Sammy’s episode, just as this is turning out to be Shawn Hatosy’s season.

From the early scene where Nate’s kid asks Sammy, “are you gonna get killed like my dad?”, it was clear that Cop Or Not was heading right into Sammy’s heart of darkness. As Sammy faced up to hitting the streets for the first time in six weeks in order to get the word out that he was back, we saw the terrible forces fighting inside him, thanks to Hatosy’s raw, De Niro-like stillness masking the struggle and conflict within. Or, as his ride-along partner put it, “you got that Sean Penn, crazy white boy thing going for you.”

When Sammy found out that he was the father of Tammi’s baby (“I’m the dad”), it was a gut-wrenchingly simple few moments that floored the viewer. You could feel the immensity of the emotions (finally knowing he was the father, knowing Nate wasn’t there to share the news). The sheer impact of this scene was thanks to the subtle artistry of three men: a typically tight and raw script from Coker, minimal, edgy direction from J.Michael Muro, and, of course, Shawn Hatosy’s acting: emotions roiling up from within, rippling across the surface as he struggled to contain them. Too much for one man; too much for the viewer.

By the time Sammy returned to the scene of Nate’s death, he couldn’t hold it together, and neither could we. When Sammy described the things Nate had taught him, as gangsters appeared on all sides, we felt the beauty and sadness of the things he was saying fighting against the dangerous volatility building fast. Sammy is a bad-ass detective, legendary on the force, but he was coming apart, coming undone; the forces of loss were breaking him. As he faced off against Nate’s killer, cops pulling up on all sides, the emotion overflowed. It was raw in the way that only SouthLAnd can be. “I ain’t goin’ anywhere,” Sammy promised the killer. We can only hope that’s true of Sammy, and of the show itself.

Occasionally those passions explode: Southland, Punching Water

“Start with the truth.”

So screamed Shawn Hatosy ‘s Sammy Bryant, handily summing up the show’s mantra in the opening scenes of this week’s Southland, the thrilling, brutal, blistering and frequently hilarious second episode of the show’s new season. Phenomenally written by Cheo Hodari Coker, and directed by Christopher Chulack with an even surer eye for movement, detail, light and Los Angeles locations than usual, Punching Water was the series’ high point to date, eclipsing past career best eps like Phase Three and What Makes Sammy Run?, raising the bar even higher for the show, and for TV drama.

What made this episode special was the heightening of the show’s fundamental elements, and the way they were combined with such sure control. Every element was punched up: the tight narrative style, the dry humor, the raw treatment of violence, and making small moments count for everything. Impressively, considering the budgetary restraints faced by the show this season, the episode not only featured all of the main cast (Lydia, Nate, Sammy, Sal, Cooper, Sherman, Chickie and Dewey), but even managed to bring all of them together in one superbly written, acted and shot, highly charged scene that also delivered one of the series’ greatest moments to date: the sight of Lydia slapping down Dewey. This was the flash forward that opened the episode, with the accompanying voiceover describing what happens when you bring together a bunch of cops passionate about their jobs: “Occasionally those passions explode.”

Despite being driven by a brutal sequence of multiple retaliatory murders across the MLK weekend, this episode also managed to be the funniest in the show’s history. There were many comic moments: Nate and Sammy’s back and forth (“playa, playa”), the other cops’ jibes about Sherman’s new lady friend, or, my personal favorite, Cooper screaming off in the patrol car with Sherman, leaving Dewey behind with a none-too-thrilled Chickie. Throughout, Punching Water ducked and dived with the confidence and sure step of a pro, like Ali, knowing when to hit you hard, and when to dance around.

The theme that drives Southland is what it means to be a cop, and Punching Water advanced this further, with awesome levels of gravitas courtesy of Michael McGrady, in a welcome return to the show as Detective “Sal” Salinger. He rallied the troops to get out to the streets to find the killer of a four year old, the latest victim in the wave of murders. Coker wrote a great speech, and McGrady completely nailed it. In doing so, he anchored the scene, the episode, and likely the season as well. He also initiated a first for the show: a montage sequence, which also marked the first time (more or less) the show has used a soundtrack since it ended the pilot episode Unknown Trouble with The National’s Fake Empire (which I talked about here). It was a departure, but it worked perfectly.

Although everyone in the cast did classy work in this episode, it was McGrady that landed the killer punch.

And that’s what the show ended with: a devastating emotional killer punch that concluded the show’s underlying theme this week, as summed up by Sherman: “love’s a bitch.” Love or lack of it was the catalyst of everything that happened in the episode, and the final scene was the perfect example of how this show can devastate you in seconds. Like a high performance car, this thing can shift gears seamlessly and quietly. You don’t even know it’s happening until it’s too late, the tears rolling down your face. This episode was a full court press throughout, saving its best shot for last.

Damn, this show is good.