SouthLAnd takes a “Risk”

It’s a testament to the unmatched greatness of SouthLAnd that in its 32 episodes to date, it has raised its quality bar to a dizzyingly brutal degree.

When this show blows up and comes at you, it’s identical to none.

So when the occasional scene doesn’t quite get it done, you feel it. And, brutal truth (SouthLAnd style), there were some scenes in Risk, early on, that felt somewhat more perfunctory than usual, that didn’t seem to grab us emotionally, or propel us forward. Some of the dialogue didn’t zing like it normally does, and moments that should have been impactful felt discarded too soon.

But it all came together brilliantly at the end, when Jimmy Muro wreaked havoc at the intersection of Elysian Park and Sunset. Those final few scenes with Lydia, Ben and Sammy were a devastating gut punch followed by a massive right hook to the head that left you on your ass seeing stars.

Like only SouthLand can.

Muro was truly the MVP of this episode: the climactic car chase/shooting/traffic collision was as off the hook and heart-poundingly, breathlessly visceral as anything the show has ever done. You thought Cooper’s throat-savaging was intense — you weren’t even ready for the crushingly sudden, shocking action here.

Time and time again, the show has shown us that all cops live in constant state of unknown trouble — anything can happen at any time. SouthLAnd will slam your expectations off the street and total them as quickly and easily as the SUV took out Sammy’s patrol car. This scene was a masterpiece. Most of the time, the show likes to obliterate its characters’ belief systems with brutal emotional collisions: this time it did it literally, totaling the patrol car in a devastating, terrifying way. It took your breath away and flooded you with adrenaline.

It left you shaking.

Give Muro any and all awards you can find please.

He did great work with Risk: the backdrop to Lydia and Ruben’s case — that mountain range of cranes against the steel sky — was beautifully, almost philosophically, bleak and austere, and fully deserved the multiple shots and angles. It was absolutely a commentary on the action: a sense of hopelessness, of things never changing.

Elsewhere, Muro found numerous ways to give us glimpses of downtown L.A. through the mid-afternoon haze, like a monster looming through the mist. And he broke out what felt like lesser-used angles for SouthLAnd: putting the camera on the outside of the passenger side looking squarely in on the driver, or hanging out the back window to look along the left side of the car during extended driving scenes. These were new textures to the show’s visual language, and they worked. He also gave us the sheer rush of skateboarding down an empty road at 40 mph — from the unfiltered clarity of the lens to the endless blue sky. It was a simple moment of euphoria.

But nothing can compare to the simpler shots of Regina King doing her finest, rawest acting of the season to date (so good and so distressing that it really messed with the viewer), and that car crash — and unlike what happened after Integrity Check, this time the promo for next week gave nothing away, leaving us in agonizing suspense about Sammy’s fate.

Let’s be clear: SouthLAnd will kick your ass. Every time. Because it’s a beautiful, brilliant show. When it’s flawless, nothing can beat it. Even when it doesn’t quite get there some of the time, you know it’s gonna sock you upside the head by the end, and when it does, there’s nothing you can do about it.

TNT, you gotta renew this m***erf***er. It’s truly phenomenal television. You knew it when you saved it from NBC. You knew it when you gave us this amazing season 4.

You still know it.

So please — give this show a 20-episode season 5, and incredible things will happen. SouthLAnd is your Mad Men, your Walking Dead, your Game Of Thrones.

Treat it that way, and it will become something unprecedented in TV. Even more than it is now.

Respect to the cast and crew: bring on that season finale!

Random observations:

  • Kudos to Chitra Sampath for contributing the “she didn’t say the safe word” elements of the  S&M domestic dispute — adding the perfect spin to one of the show’s more awesomely insane highlights.
  • Some of the other situations were kinda beautiful in their oddball charm — who couldn’t love drunk golf ball guy?

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 aces its “Integrity Check”

If ever there was a show that didn’t need an integrity check, it’s SouthLAnd. No show has ever been more authentic.

And this was one of its most stripped back, brutal episodes.

It started with the photoflash freezeframe voiceover, which was much more to the point than usual: the average street cop in Los Angeles makes $75,000 a year… it’s not enough.

It really isn’t, judging by the hell that our characters have to fight through every week, which sometimes comes from the cases they work, and other times is of their own making. However it occurs, the characters on SouthLAnd get pushed further and harder than those on any other show. It’s f**king brutal, but it’s what makes the greatest dramas.

This week was rough. It had its funny scenes, of course, because this show can be violent and dark and horribly sad and gut-punchingly funny at any given moment, without ever sacrificing its ability to grab you in an emotional choke-hold or make you laugh while it’s doing it. Whether it was Sherman’s “leap of shame” or Dewey’s entirely expected yet so much worse than you expected ranting in front of the documentary crew, Integrity Check brought the raw humor when it wanted to.

It just didn’t want to very often. With this sixth episode, SouthLAnd turned the corner of darkness and pain that it’s been heading towards since the start of the season. You get the feeling things are only going to get more messed up from here.

Ben McKenzie and Shawn Hatosy nailed the disintegration of the trust between them, bringing a raw energy that made their performances more wrenching. Regina King was superlative, as she always is, dealing with Lydia’s temporary return to uniform duty with the almost unbearably visceral physical challenges that involves. But while we might have thought what happened to her was awful, we had no idea what was waiting for us at the end of Cooper’s shift.

Once again, this show reveals just how much of a knife-edge cops walk on, every minute of every day. Anything can happen at any time, and it can be goddamned terrible and come out of nowhere. Michael Cudlitz again stepped up and delivered an Emmy-worthy performance as Cooper found himself suddenly embroiled in a truly horrific and shockingly savage fight to the almost death. It was intensely physical, taking the show’s already extraordinary physicality to a new, transcendently brutal level.

It was breathless television, unbelievable, unwatchable almost, although you couldn’t tear your eyes away.

That’s what SouthLAnd does to you.

It was a great script that took us to that terrible place, penned by SouthLAnd’s master of brutal precision, Jonathan Lisco, with story editing by Chitra Sampath. Lisco brings an emotional scalpel to his stories, flaying characters bare, down to the bone. His scripts are always perfect studies in structure, pace, and ruthless execution. Sampath brings a wonderfully unhinged sense of humor (her “find my friends app” scene in Failure Drill is still one of the greatest comedy moments of the show), and an impeccable sense of controlled chaos coupled with the ability to unleash it at the exact right moment. With Sampath on board, all hell will typically break loose, at the worst moment for our characters. And so it does here.

A script by Lisco demands the greatest of the SouthLAnd directors, Christopher Chulack. While John Wells runs the writers room, it’s Chulack who is on the street, running the other directors, and acting as the guardian of SouthLAnd‘s visual aesthetic. In this, he is ably assisted by the greatest director of photography in film and TV, Jimmy Muro. Between them, Chulack & Muro create masterpieces of depth and motion with the L.A. light and locations. Two particular examples out of many: the reflections of palm trees along the strip mall windows where Cooper and Tang deal with the “cake incident”; the depth of field and rich, endless golden light behind Cooper as the documentary crew film him after he lets the driver with expired registration go.

The episode was full of such moments, and it had a new layer this time round: that of the camera crew filming the cops. This allowed Chulack & Muro to change visual textures and create constantly evolving looks for the episode as they switched between the documentary, and the show’s normal look (which is ultra-heightened, desaturated documentary). It was a fascinating decision to introduce this conceptual and visual layer, and it worked perfectly.

Episodes of SouthLAnd are like the Sistine Chapel of television. Chulack & Muro are artists of the streets. But it’s art that knocks you flat on your ass with its impact. They’re refining their approach with every episode, and Integrity Check represented a new level of beautiful detail, deep light, layers upon complex layers; all of which drove the shocking and visceral moment to moment heart-stopping action, which was front and center throughout. It was, visually, a beautiful & haunting episode. As happens so often, it was a masterclass in framing, composition, lighting, depth and motion.

Let’s face it, SouthLAnd is a show that will wrestle you to the ground and savage you emotionally. It may lull you with the beauty of Los Angeles, the punch of its humor, the soulful camaraderie of its characters, but don’t let it: because it will come for you eventually, and put you through the ringer, leaving you exhausted, drained, shaking.

It’s what you keep coming back for.

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.

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.