SouthLAnd “Identity”: The Land Of The Blue

Let’s cut to the chase, SouthLAnd style: Identity was a classic, hardcore episode, firing off staggering levels of raw emotion and dark humor. It was vintage SouthLAnd, doing what this show does best: not so much tugging at your heartstrings as grabbing them with both hands and yanking on them for an hour. It was ruthless, brutal, savagely funny, full of heart and heartbreak.

And it was thanks to two extraordinary women: Sara Gran & Regina King.

Let’s start with Sara Gran’s fantastic script.

Damn.

This was powerful writing, surging & supercharged with overflowing, overwhelming emotions, conveyed with absolute control and unflinching discipline. Any of the scenes in this script could have gone one beat too far, overplayed their hand, spelled it out: not a single one of them did. This was an hour of TV that raced past thanks to the furious pace and deadly precision of the script’s construction. And Identity was one of SouthLAnd‘s most nakedly raw and emotional episodes, up there with Code 4 and What Makes Sammy Run.

If our hearts have pressure points, Sara Gran found them and applied maximum force, leaving us breathless and reeling.

In this she was ably assisted by the queen of understated power, the undisputed heavyweight champion of high-intensity forcefield presence, Regina King. The episode was all about her discovering that she was pregnant, and working out what the hell she was going to do about it. Sara Gran’s script gave King plenty to work with; it was beautiful how much the detectives’ case told us about exactly what Lydia was going through. The stories are always supposed to be about the emotional impact on the detectives, and this was an A+ example.

Not only did the arc of the mother protecting her child deliver an extreme amount of heartache, Lydia’s reaction to it all as she processed the full implications of what being a mother would mean was incredibly moving. When Lydia was surprised that a mother would even admit to murder to protect her child, to which Ruben said, “admit to murder, commit murder; there’s nothing you won’t do,” King’s reaction was nothing short of amazing. Her deeply expressive eyes showed us Lydia’s conflicted soul, her tormented heart, her life about to change forever. This is something few can do; King makes it business as usual.

Give this woman an Emmy already.

It wasn’t all about the heartache though. One of SouthLAnd‘s key strengths is its ability to veer from darkness to light and back, turning on a dime, often mid-scene, often mid-sentence. It’s so human that way; the rawness of laughter in the face of darkness, a necessary survival mechanism in drama as well as life.

To put it more bluntly: SouthLAnd is damn funny. It can make you cry, gasp in horror, and laugh, in the same scene, even in the same beat. Sara Gran was exemplary here: the humor was roughly dispensed and brilliantly played by the actors, with Sammy and Ben’s stories in particular bringing out raucous laughter amidst the sadness of it all. Although, that said, the argument about whose jurisdiction the body parts were in was the perfect summation of SouthLAnd‘s sense of humor: so dark, yet you can’t stop laughing. It’s like Louis CK is in the writers room telling them they’ve gone too far, and they’re just laughing at him and making it even darker.

I’d like to give a special shout out to the day players in this episode. The protective mother, Melanie, and homeless former Marine Tom Smith were played with devastating truth and soul. Smith’s scenes in particular were almost impossible to watch and to bear, so absolutely heartbreaking was the way the actor played them.

Director Nelson McCormick and DOP Cameron Duncan lit and framed these scenes with a beautiful starkness, proving that oftentimes, the more minimal it gets, the more it hurts.

That’s SouthLAnd‘s MO. As the opening voiceover said, some days the trying works better than others. Even on a slow day in the SouthLAnd, this show will still grab you by the scruff of the neck and drag you ruthlessly through its streets. On a day like this one, it will grab your heart and never let go.

Random observations:

  • By the way, can anyone on this show prowl around a scene like Shawn Hatosy? Anyone? I don’t think so. If Michael Cudlitz has practically trademarked “the stance” (as SouthLAnd superfan & supporter extraordinaire @bluegrassbabe3 has accurately pointed out via Twitter), then surely Hatosy has owned “the prowl”?
  • Ben McKenzie’s face when he was performing CPR on the kid from the swimming pool: raw, broken, angry, hopeful. Fantastic acting.
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“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.

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: “Another f***ing happy day”

What a season this is turning out to be for SouthLAnd. Each episode is an aggressive evolution from the one before, while still retaining the show’s core truths, values and style. It’s at the top of its game right now. Not that it ever wasn’t — it’s notable how strongly this show started with Unknown Trouble — but this season it’s powerhousing its way through complex storylines and brutal, unflinching character work.

If there’s a theme emerging for season three, it’s this: pitting the characters against the massive disintegration of their values, emotions, psyches and even their lives, in some cases. As a writer, you learn quickly: drama is conflict, great drama is high-stakes conflict — which pretty much makes SouthLAnd the reigning king of Shakespearean tragedy on cable TV. Everything the characters hold dear is f**ked with brutally and relentlessly. It’s like Hamlet with a shotgun and a badge, only the ghosts are real and never go away.

The Winds started and ended with John coming apart in the desert as the Santa Anas grew wilder. A bare, unforgiving landscape for his breakdown. Nelson McCormick directed this  — he’s becoming SouthLAnd‘s go-to director for the “disintegration” episodes, having previously handled Ben’s shattering revelations in Discretion. With a beautifully layered script from Heather Zuhkle, McCormick did an excellent job of bringing us into John Cooper’s complex world.

The episode could have been subtitled “fatherhood.” Cooper found himself inadvertently becoming a father figure to an abandoned child, in a series of low-key, moving scenes. Later, he aggressively stepped into the role of a missing father to a kid who called the cops because his mom beat him. And finally, he gave his verdict at his own father’s early parole hearing. His father was in jail for rape and murder, and John was as uncompromising as we knew he would be, despite the massive personal cost. Michael Cudlitz gave a heavyweight, authoritative performance this week, shouldering the massive burden of Cooper’s many demons and making you care, painfully.

The rest of the show was taken up with Lydia and Josie pursuing a series of rape cases, and developed their conflicts and partnership in a natural, seemingly effortless way. The two fought over policy, philosophy, technique, and I have to say that as great as Jenny Gago is as Josie, Regina King is a legend. It’s that simple.

The Winds had its moments of comedy too, best of all being Dewey and Cooper arguing over whether one victim “hanged” or “hung” himself. Dewey lost it and turned to Sherman: “Google it, Boot.” Needless to say, Cooper was right.

Of course, we couldn’t forget what happened last week: Nate’s death haunted the edges of this episode, and when Dewey asked Cooper if he was going to the funeral, Cooper responded with, “yeah, another f***ing happy day.”

Which could be the subtitle to this entire series. The Los Angeles streets are tough, brutal, unforgiving, and SouthLAnd does a tremendous job paying tribute to those who serve there.