Anticipating SouthLAnd Season 5

Rewatching SouthLAnd‘s great and groundbreaking season 4 got me thinking: where could or should the show go in season 5?

In the SouthLAnd, anything can happen

It’s a show that thrives on evolution, after all. In a Doctor Who kind of way, it regenerates with every season. And it does this boldly, fearlessly… SouthLAnd style. From Wednesday to Thursday (Jonathan Lisco’s rather brilliantly low-key titles for eps 1 and 10), the show took some pretty hardcore narrative leaps, and went to darker places than ever before. It was more distilled, its signature intensity crystallized into something even harder and more beautiful. It’s made up of shards that are brutally sharp and reflect the light, sometimes blindingly. I mean this narratively, visually, emotionally, psychologically. I was thinking to myself, how could they possibly do this again, but better, take it further, in season 5?

Then I realized.

The answers lie in what for my money were the two greatest episodes of season 4: Integrity (ep 6, wr. Jonathan Lisco, dir. Chris Chulack, DoP Jimmy Muro), and God’s Work (ep 8, wr. Cheo Coker, dir. Guy Norman Bee, DoP Dana Gonzales).

These two eps broke new ground, pushed the show further and harder: Integrity Check was a new kind of television, using the documentry crew device to access new depth and force, while God’s Work hit hard with powerful soulfulness. They both showed how SouthLAnd can do what it has always done: evolve yet again, and continue to stay hungry and focused.

How, I hear you ask!

I’ll tell ya.

It’s pretty bold though. Fair warning!

One element that the show did seem to struggle with in season 4, and it was really the only element, was integrating the detectives’ storylines fully. That is, making them relevant to the episode in general, and also making them resonant with what was going on in Lydia and Ruben’s lives. It didn’t happen often, but there were a couple of episodes where they seemed detached from the rest of the show, and even from the crimes they were investigating.

But in episode 6, Lisco did something brilliant. He put Lydia back in uniform, back in the patrol car.

Lydia Adams… a future in uniform?

Genius.

What if for season 5, they shifted entirely to patrol officers — and hold up all you angry Regina King fans, I totally mean that she should be one of them! If you look back, there seems to be an irresistible gravity pulling the show in that direction. One by one the detectives transfer out (of the force, of life… RIP Nate). And the show has already shown us that Lydia can handle a uniform and patrol car. It may be crazy, but it might just supercharge the entire season. And I know who I’d want to see Regina King in the car with; I’m sure we all have some good ideas about that.

Integrity Check was a stripped back and raw episode, a more intense, enhanced version of the show that I believe should be the template for season 5. Chulack and Muro took full advantage of the brilliant device of the documentary film crew to really push things forward visually and directorially. Just look at the depth of field and incredible detail of the precise shot composition below — think of that as an analogy of how the storytelling could accommodate a narrower focus:

Cudlitz, Liu, and some gorgeously detailed depth of field… Kudos to Muro & Chulack

But this is a show that thrives on diversity and balance. Underlying its surface immediacy and intensity are deep, soulful grooves of emotion and desire; the overwhelming force of what it means to be human. This show, more than any other, is utterly rooted in character. And God’s Work was the prime example of that.

Michael Cudlitz, Lawrence Gilliard Jr, and about a thousand lens flares courtesy of DoP Dana Gonzales

Coker’s wonderful script was elevated by some of the best directing in the show’s history courtesy of Guy Norman Bee, with Dana Gonzales shooting it all in a combination of a golden hazes and harshly desaturated glares… both reflecting the soul of Los Angeles, and of the show.

Shawn Hatosy and Ben McKenzie in a beautifully directed (and acted) scene

Although I’m proposing a detective-free next season, I must point out that God’s Work was the perfect and best example of how to pull patrol officers and detectives into one powerful, cohesive episode (which should be no surprise since Coker wrote it; he was the first and only writer to pull the entire original cast into one scene in Punching Water). But we could think of it as a goodbye… the best example of integrating the show’s dual levels, and the platform from which everything changes.

Can the show be soulful without detectives? It can. It just has to bring that soulfulness in via more focused means. Regina King’s eyes, Muro’s and Gonzales’ lighting, the brillliance of Lisco’s ideas, the ferociousness of Chulack’s directing, and the brilliance of Guy Norman Bee’s helming.

And, of course, the incredible, peerless cast.

I loved the show when it had the full cast spread out over patrol and detective work, but I’ve loved it even more as it became streamlined, faster-moving, more raw. I know whatever direction the writers and producers take it in, I’ll continue to love it. I can’t wait to see what they come up with, because from writers to producers to cast to crew, this is the best team in the business. They’ve earned our trust and loyalty a thousand times over. These are just the humble musings of a fan; I don’t doubt for a second that wherever the producers choose to take us, season 5 will be utterly surprising, and utterly brilliant.

SouthLAnd: “Thursday” — Moment Of Truth

SouthLAnd excels at forcing its characters into moments of truth.

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

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

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

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

SouthLAnd will devastate you with an almost casual ease.

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

It was an episode of heavyweight performances.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exactly.

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

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

It’s working.

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

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.