Luke Cage: Long Live the Chief

Back in the day (well, 2011), I wrote about an emerging TV writer called Cheo Hodari Coker, who was working on the greatest cop show of all time (SouthLAnd, fool), in a blog with the title Coker Plays The Blues. Coker went on to write some of SouthLAnd‘s greatest episodes, as well as work on Almost Human, NCIS: LA and Ray Donovan.

But now he’s stepped up to create and run a show that’s been dominating social media for most of the summer, without even being released. So when Netflix dropped the most buzzed about show in its history at the end of September, expectations were sky high.

luke-cage-hoodie

2016 is an especially charged year for a show about a bulletproof black man, a fact not lost on Coker. So he did the only right thing, the thing he’d been intending to do all along: he leaned into that, hard. Luke Cage dives deep into the African American experience: it’s the show’s beating heart, the blood in its veins, its soul, and its purpose. And in that respect, the show couldn’t be any better.

The show’s foregrounding of what it means to be black in America is so long overdue in TV (or on any size screen) it’s ridiculous: how has it taken this long? (Yes, I know why: institutional bias, AKA, racism). Luke Cage is what TV (and America, and the world) needs now more than ever. Coker cast people of color in every level of role (which, shamefully for society and pop culture, was a revolutionary act in itself) and hit hard with his signature dropping of references in the scripts, which means the show is stacked deep with truly excellent actors and performances, namechecks everything from Chester Hines to A$AP Rocky… and then there’s that soundtrack… damn, that soundtrack is sweet. Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad bring the funk with a gritty, slinky, soulful Wu-Tang meets Shaft vibe that gives the show a whole extra dimension of cool.

It has been called the Wu-Tangification of Marvel (by Coker), but on watching the show, you realize that that’s not strictly true… it’s more classic and less agitated than that. It’s more like the 70s Isaac Hayes-ification of Marvel, which is still intensely, deeply cool, but not quite as savage and frenetic as the Staten Island collective. The reason for that is the pace of the show. When Jessica Jones (which gave us our first look at Cage) dropped, some people complained about its novelistic pacing, and how not every episode stood alone in terms of stuff happening specific to each episode. Personally, I dug the hell out of it, but here’s the thing: Luke Cage is paced much more slowly than JJ.

It’s beautifully made, but it’s also an extremely deliberate, measured, slow burn, which is why it’s more Motown than RZA. It’s personal preference as to what you make of that. For this reviewer, it did feel early on as though all the bandwidth was being taken up with some very long conversations. The conversations were, of course, important texturally, and in themselves, they’re joyously great (that opening scene was beautifully played out); but you can’t help wondering if there could have been a way to combine the texture with the action, instead of separating them out. The show makes texture, subtext, theme and action all one thing later on to brilliant effect (e.g. the dashcam video, Misty explaining why an innocent black man would be on the run from cops who think he’s guilty and are armed with special bullets), which makes you long for some of that at the start.

Those early conversations are about books, meditations on the nature of power and society, and what it means to be a man. Those are all powerful things to fill a show with, but this is a genre show that’s part of the Marvel universe. For the first half of the season, it didn’t necessarily feel that way: it lacked fire and, literally, punch.

lc-mike-colter

OK, there’s some punching…

Luke Cage is, especially early on, a somewhat passive and reactive character. The premise for the show is that he’s hiding out in Harlem, trying to be invisible (I’m not sure we needed the lingering shot of Cage staring at the cover of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, but…). That’s a low key place to start, but necessary for Cage’s arc from hideaway to hero. Thirteen hours is a long time for that type of arc to play out, though. That means the show takes some serious time working through those beats. The pattern for the first few episodes is a lot of talking, and maybe a minute or less of action at the end. You need to get on board with the slowed down rhythm. The lack of fire and tension is compounded too by some head-on framing (perfectly composed and very still wide master shots are a trademark of Sherlock director Paul McGuigan, who directed the first two episodes and set the tone), scenes that are very, very cool but run long (e.g. Cottonmouth walking very slowly towards his picture window to get the perfect framing of the Biggie picture’s crown on his head), and editing that lingers slightly too long on some moments, all of which contribute to letting the air out of a lot of scenes.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s a certain glee to moments in the first three eps. Luke beating down Cottonmouth’s thugs at the end of the first, Luke’s iconic attack on the Crispus Attucks building to the sounds of Bring Da Ruckus in three (which, although it lacks some visual clarity, is still damn cool), to the closing seconds of that episode, when Cottonmouth shoots a f**cking rocket at Luke—it’s undeniably a kickass moment—which kicks us into ep 4, which is full of flashbacks. That ep takes its time, but lets us know exactly what happened to Luke to make him bulletproof, which justifies the speed of the revelation.

The transitional episode is probably the fifth, “Just To Get A Rep.” This features some of the most clumsy and purely functional dialogue to date in the show, and it has scenes thrown together that don’t really flow, creating a jarring effect. But it’s the ep’s epic non-dialogue scenes that tilt the show towards its remaining (and generally much more successful) episodes. Firstly, Jidenna singing Long Live The Chief in the club is f**king HUGE. It hits HARD. Goddamn, I loved that. Suddenly, the club and its music IGNITE in terms of storytelling. Chills, baby. Secondly, and, sorry, even more awesomely, is the reappearance of Claire Temple, played by the legendary, extraordinary, miraculous Rosario Dawson. While everyone on the show is phenomenal (more on that later, but gotta shoutout Simone Missick right here), it’s Dawson that brings the fire to Luke Cage. She’s walking through Harlem, some punk steals her bag… so she runs him down and beats the shit out of him. Perfect. Welcome back, Claire.

photo

And just to point out, those two were actually ONE SEQUENCE. Hats off. Jidenna in the club interweaves with Claire beating down her attacker. It’s how the ep starts and it’s JUST. SO. GOOD. You’re on your feet yelling at the TV because this is exactly what TV should be.

From here on, the fire set in episode five begins to burn more steadily. There are some bumps along the way—the pacing is still uneven, the dialogue can be stilted in places, and the reveal of Diamondback lacked clarity, which detracted from the impact of his appearance (the very low-key, very low-impact handling of shooting Luke with the second Judas bullet didn’t help)—and there’s another significant dip in episode 10, “Take It Personal”, which has much less effective dialogue than ep 5, and in terms of outline and execution, is often confusing and bemusing (so much is made earlier of how catastrophic it would be for Luke to get shot with a second Judas bullet, but ep 10 forgets that second bullet is even there — Claire only takes out one set of fragments. That’s severely jarring, and takes you out of the story.).

But, on the heels of that, we get “Now You’re Mine,” the eleventh and absolutely the best episode by far. Shout out to the writer, Christian Taylor, and the director, George Tillman Jr. It’s amazing. It’s like the show needed to follow Diamondback’s advice in the early moments of the ep: “Later for that pre-written shit… sometimes you gotta freestyle.” Hell to the yes. The dialogue sings sweetly, characters spit wisdom and fire, the storytelling is tense, fraught, suspenseful, the directing is ferocious, and the whole thing is just fantastically and gleefully dark and intense. It also features one of Claire and Misty’s finest moments as they beat down Shades and help each other try to escape the club. Magnificent, towering performances from Dawson and Missick make this some of the best TV of 2016. This is what the show needed to be. Not in the sense that it had to come out of the gate at an 11, but there needed to be signs that this was coming; that this could happen in this world.

lc-misty-and-claire

Episode 12, “Soliloquy Of Chaos” (we have to give Coker kudos for naming every episode after a Gang Starr track, because it works perfectly), continues to bring the fire. Which EXPLODES in the finest final moments of any ep in the show: the always brilliant Ron Cephas Jones finally—FINALLY—gets a bunch of lines worth a damn and absolutely kills with them (“What the hell what type of Jean-Paul Gaultier shit is this? What are you, a pimp stormtrooper?” GREATEST LINES ON TV IN 2016), and the show plunges head-on into full genre insanity, when Misty speaks for all of us and says, “kick his ass, Luke.” Diamondback, tricked out in his pimp stormtrooper high-tech-as-shit outfit, and Luke finally rush each other… and we cut to black. Genius. Everything about this episode works so perfectly it hurts.

lc-diamondback

The final episode drops us right into the fight we’ve been waiting for, and it’s refreshing, and appropriate, that it’s more of a drag-out, knock-down Rocky style brawl in the street. It does kind of just, end, though — and the hints of sci-fi that have been given during it (lingering shots of the power unit on Diamondback’s… back… powering up and down) are not really capitalized upon. And, the fight is at the opening of the episode, which doesn’t leave the rest of the hour with too many places to go. The sudden end to the fight, and the story’s subsequent adrenaline crash, take us back to a slower pace, which foregrounds the key concern of the show: Luke’s lack of agency. Although there are a few key moments when he takes control, for the majority of the thirteen episodes, things happen to him, and he reacts. Which could have worked, except the finale to the show is Luke, in one sense, giving up, reacting one last time and allowing circumstances to dictate his path in life. You can, clearly, read his final decision as noble, and can see some justification for it in his general world-weariness. But it’s an oddly low-key, anticlimactic end. That said, the very final shot, applause over the New York skyline, is pretty goddamned amazing and thrilling.

But Luke isn’t in that shot, and that reminds us that in this show, some of the things that are the most awesome don’t involve Luke at all.

lc-shades

Including, and especially, the other characters. Theo Rossi threatens to steal the show as Shades. Simone Missick gives Misty such a wonderful, wounded intensity. Erik LaRay Harvey tears up Diamondback’s dialogue and spits it in finely deranged fashion. Alfre Woodard truly delivers Mariah’s tipping between powerful and powerless. Mahershala Ali is positively and ferociously Shakespearean as Cottonmouth. Ron Cephas Jones needed more lines because he could say anything and make it sound kick-ass. Rosario Dawson… shit, why doesn’t she have her own Netflix Marvel show at this point? Expose Claire to some experimental rays or serums or some shit and give her powers and let her tear it up! (One of the show’s coolest moments is Claire’s final shot, where she tears off the number for the self defense classes… she’s so gonna own Iron Fist).

But we can’t forget the main man, the power man. Mike Colter. He really brings the brooding, haunted, conflicted Cage to vivid life. Despite the fact the Luke has a habit of being pushed to the back of the action, Colter mesmerizes in every shot, and makes it his own. One of the best cast Marvel heroes of all, no doubt.

So this is where we end up: there is so much to love with Luke Cage. It’s an important show, an essential show, frequently beautiful to look at and experience, and it does many, many things really f**king well. But in the interest of brutal truth: it is uneven (you can clearly feel the different writers on the show), there are pacing and dialogue issues, and its hero often seems detached from the action (in some cases literally off-screen for major stretches of time). Coker is absolutely one of the finest TV writers we have, and has curated a supremely bad-ass and massively, poignantly relevant piece of iconic pop culture with Luke Cage. For what it’s worth, I hope he uses those final few episodes as the template for season 2. This show is too good, and too important, for anything less.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Gotham: a Shameless-ly brilliant performance from Cameron Monaghan is no joke

I’ve watched a lot of television the last few days, and one thing has become abundantly clear: with a pair of standout turns in Gotham and Shameless, Cameron Monaghan owned TV this week.

Cameron Monaghan owning TV this week

Like I said, Cameron Monaghan, owning TV this week

I’ll start with Gotham, in which Monaghan took on the iconic role of the Joker. It was a star-making turn in a show that has become essential viewing. In just 16 episodes, Gotham has carved out an iconic spot in the TV schedule. Full to bursting with grittily memorable performances, with Ben McKenzie’s beleaguered crusader for justice Jim Gordon and Robin Lord Taylor’s beautifully off-kilter Penguin leading the pack (“hello, old friend”), the show has a rock-solid grip on its world.

Gordon and Penguin face off... face... off...

Gordon and Penguin face off… face… off…

Gotham is a perpetually cloudy, ominous, dirty, baroque version of itself, like an L.S. Lowry steel mill nightmare, peopled with lowlifes and hoodlums, iconic freaks, and lost souls. It’s dark, uneasy, but it’s shot through with a rough, raucous humor, a wild and wide-eyed glee in its strangeness. The show takes a particular kind of comic book sensibility and runs with it; it’s a fractured, monstrous reality that feels 100% grounded.

It’s also, of course, the home to the future Batman, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, the Riddler… Chief amongst these, of course, is the young Bruce Wayne, and the show has done a fantastic job showing us his slow, steady journey towards becoming the Batman. It does make you kind of wish for a spin-off teen Batman and Catwoman show, since David Mazouz and Camren Bicondova have been consistently fascinating as their younger versions. The producers have said that the show ends when Batman first puts on his suit, which is on one hand a shame, but on another, completely understandable, since Gotham is Jim Gordon’s show, and Ben McKenzie delivers raw, fearless, intense, hilarious and gripping performances week after week.

This week’s episode, “The Blind Fortune Teller,” took on the circus, which allowed the show to dive even deeper into its beautiful weirdness. This circus is run by the Lloyds and — future sidekick alert — the Graysons, two families at war. McKenzie’s Gordon is on an awkward date at the circus with Morena Baccarin’s Dr. Leslie Thompkins, when a fight breaks out in the middle of the show… a fight which ends with the discovery of a body: the snake lady has been murdered, and her son, played by Monaghan, is distraught.

Or so it seemed. Monaghan brought the kind of sensitivity we’ve seen from him in Shameless, at least to start with, as he played the lonely, upset son struggling with his mother’s death. Gordon didn’t buy it though, and in a you-can’t-handle-the-truth showdown in an interview room, Monaghan revealed his character’s true self in an absolutely brilliant and unforgettable 3 minutes of television. We saw flickers of the future Joker rippling across his face as he danced between madness, sadness and psychosis, often in the same beat. And then there was that laugh. Chills. In just a few beats, Monaghan gave an extraordinary, indelible performance that would have been the most iconic moment of the TV week… if Monaghan hadn’t already claimed that title the night before.

Because he also plays Ian in Shameless, a gay teen who has been struggling with bipolar disorder for most of this season. In “Crazy Love,” Ian kidnapped his boyfriend Mickey’s baby and went on a terrifying 18 hour joyride while his friends and family slowly disintegrated with worry and fear. It was a bravura, revelatory performance, culminating in some jaw-droppingly heartbreaking work as Ian finally gets checked in to a mental institution. He played the fear, the overwhelming sadness, the almost total inability to process what was happening, in the most understated of ways.

Cameron Monaghan and Noel Fisher as Ian and Mickey. Broken hearts very much pictured.

Cameron Monaghan and Noel Fisher as Ian and Mickey. Broken hearts very much pictured.

 

“Crazy Love” was written by John Wells, himself one of the most iconic figures in TV today, the creative force behind E.R., The West Wing, Third Watch… and of course, SouthLAnd and Shameless, which made the Gordon-Joker face-off something of a SouthLAnd-Shameless mash-up, since McKenzie played Ben Sherman on 5 seasons of the always amazing and canceled-WAY-too-soon SouthLAnd.

Moment of silence for that show.

We miss you, SouthLAnd

We miss you, SouthLAnd

So in this week’s Shameless, Wells did what he does best: create visual and emotional moments of pure television. He did the heavy lifting at the start of the episode (although he’s a brilliant writer, so it seemed effortless), so that by the end, we were coasting on pure emotion, and it was all down to the actors to play the heartbreak. And play it they did.

I want to take a second here to call out Noel Fisher, who has been one of the most underrated but consistently excellent actors on this show. He plays Mickey, the most-feared motherf**ker on the South Side, who is also Ian’s boyfriend. Fisher has been brilliant throughout, conveying the constant struggle as Mickey fights to maintain his rep while also trying to actually be happy. In “Crazy Love,” Fisher showed Mickey coming apart at the f**king seams. His moments in the car ride back from finding Ian, where he realizes that Ian has to be committed, and in the institution at the end, were genuinely astonishing.

No I wasn't crying, a**hole. F**k you. (quietly sobs in the corner)

No I wasn’t crying, a**hole. F**k you. (quietly sobs in the corner)

But ultimately, the show was really Monaghan’s, as was Gotham. He owned them both with connected, naturalistic, grounded and heartfelt work, and with these back-to-back performances of troubled, unstable characters, Monaghan has surely put himself on the Emmy map.

Gotham is going from strength to strength with dizzying speed, and Shameless is in the midst of one of its best seasons to date.

I love TV.

 

Bunnies, jumpsuits and clones: TV’s ongoing golden age, 2013 edition

It’s interesting that three of of the greatest seasons of TV in 2013 were all debut shows, two of which came from non-traditional sources.

While Masters Of Sex, a richly nuanced telling of William Masters and Virginia Johnson’s pioneering 1950s sex study, is as burnished and high-quality as you would expect from Showtime, the other two shows came from a DVD rental shop and a cable network not known for original programming. Orange Is The New Black (privileged white girl gets sent to prison for transgressions in her younger life) was a breakout hit for Netflix, while Orphan Black (a twenty-something mother trying to get her child back discovers she has multiple clones) was a phenomenal success for BBC America. They tell very varied stories, but they all share a key quality: an immersive, kinetic, almost urgent sense of emotional turmoil and evolution.

Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan

Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan

Masters Of Sex, from showrunner Michelle Ashford, has a beautiful, gleaming quality reminiscent of Robert Redford’s Quiz Show. It’s shot and directed in a gloriously low-key yet detailed manner that still finds time to be transcendently visual. Even though it focuses on a groundbreaking study about people having sex, it’s really about the journeys that Masters and Johnson go on, which requires many conversations about methodology, belief systems and statistics. Ashford’s genius is making this an incredibly dynamic and fascinating show, scene after scene, episode after episode. It dives deep into its characters, and elevates their struggles to a mythic level, even as it grounds them in the most fundamental of human needs and desires. Lest that sound too weighty, it’s a very funny show, shot through with a dry, sly wit that emerges not just in dialogue, but also visually (the greatest visual moment of television in 2013 may well have been the sight of a post-coital male rabbit collapsing into sleep the second it, uh, “finishes”).

Coitus not pictured

Coitus not pictured

The writing is always smart, the acting is revelatory across the board, and it all looks amazing.

Taylor Schilling

Taylor Schilling

Orange Is The New Black is a deliberately scrappier affair, as befits the chaotic nature of its subject matter. Piper is a WASP-y character who ran wild during her early twenties, carrying out all kinds of illicit and illegal activities at the behest of her girlfriend and lover, Alex. Eventually, Piper gave it all up, and got engaged to NPR-worshipping, brunch-loving Larry. Years later, Piper’s name is given to the authorities, and she is arrested for her crimes, and sent to prison. What follows is Piper’s fraught, emotionally charged journey through prison life. It’s upsetting, terrifying, moving, hilarious and horrifying in equal parts, and never less than utterly gripping. Showrunner Jenji Kohan nails the tone of the show, keeping every episode flying with emotional energy, humor and conflict. It’s a natural fit for Netflix, as it is literally impossible to resist binge-watching this show. The prison is full of vastly different women, all of whom have their own pasts and arcs; it’s a rich and diverse source of stories, all fueled by human beings on the edge, desperate to survive, to make it through, to make it out.

Tatiana Maslany

Tatiana Maslany

Masters Of Sex and Orange Is The New Black deal in realism. Orphan Black, developed by Graeme Manson, has different DNA; it’s a sci-fi thriller with a bleakly beautiful contemporary feel. Very quickly, lead character Sarah Manning discovers that she is not alone; there are young women out there just like her. Not just demographically, but literally: there are identical clones running around and bringing the ruckus (including, notably, a terrifyingly feral assassin clone, although even she is somehow overshadowed by the antics of the soccer mom). The show unfolds its techno-thriller plot with the verve and emotion of Fringe, and the relentless grip of Homeland. The conspiracy widens and the truth evolves. These fantastical elements are grounded in some jaw-dropping performances. The two leads, Felix (played by Dylan Bruce) and Sarah (played by Tatiana Maslany) are originally from Brixton, in the south of London. This is one of the most specific British accents there is; Bruce and Maslany are both Canadian, but both deliver flawlessly authentic and thrillingly naturalistic performances. But it doesn’t stop there, because Maslany also plays the clones, all of whom are wildly different, in character and mannerisms. It’s an acting showcase and masterclass that weaves breathlessly around the ferociously unfolding plot. It’s highly engaging, and never lets up for a second.

Three brilliant seasons, three brilliant shows.

There were many other great seasons of TV in 2013 too: Almost Human, The Walking Dead, Person Of Interest, Arrow, Nashville, The Tomorrow People, The Blacklist, Shameless, Game Of Thrones (which delivered the year’s most talked about episode of TV, the Rains of Castamere), Homeland (which seemed to nosedive for three episodes before revealing that it was in fact its most ruthlessly brilliant season yet),  as well as the UK hit The Wrong Mans, a brilliantly off-kilter and kinetic “action sitcom” about being an ordinary man caught up in a Bourne-style conspiracy.

Special shout out: the fifth and final season of SouthLAnd, one of the greatest TV dramas of all time, which inexplicably received the worst DVD handling of any TV show in history (barely getting a release, appearing as “DVD on demand”, then bundling odd groups of seasons of the show together, never once releasing a prestige blu ray set, even getting its theme music replaced on some DVDs and digital downloads). The lack of options undoubtedly held back its ratings (binge-watching catch-ups are a key part of keeping shows alive in later seasons), and although the show ended on a typically intense and emotional high, it’s a shame it isn’t easier for fans or newbies to own it in a quality format.

All these shows featured compelling characters, gripping emotional journeys, killer banter, and dynamic pacing. TV is going through a continuing golden age that only seems to deepen as shows start emerging from unexpected venues. There are more channels greenlighting more shows year-round, instead of the usual handful during the more typical pilot season. Now fantastic shows are constantly springing up and demanding great acting and writing talent. It’s an astonishingly fertile, lively, beautiful time for television drama. It’s hell on my DVR and my writing schedule.

Long may it continue.

Almost Human: under the Skin

It can be tough for a new show to maintain momentum in its second outing. Fortunately for Almost Human, episode two (“Skin”) featured a Cheo Coker script about sexbots. This was basically the exact opposite of a Kobayashi Maru scenario.

Coker has perfected the art of yielding deep character revelations from the smallest of moments (on SouthLAnd), and the skill of wielding heavy exposition on the fly (on NCIS:LA). These abilities are essential in the future world of Almost Human, which has a network procedural chassis powered by a cable-style character-based engine. The words were the supple human skin on this artificial life form: the hour was full of emotional, wry, hard-hitting and rhythmic dialogue. With a steady stream of killer details (cats, balls), Kennex and Dorian bantered like pros. Karl Urban and Michael Ealy played their scenes to perfection, continuing an endearing chemistry that makes us want to spend the entire hour listening to them ragging on each other.

Almost Human Skin

Both actors can convey emotional nuance with the smallest of actions, which fits the style of this show perfectly; it’s a gritty, flinty, fast-moving world, composed of shards of light and emotion amongst the steel and glass. Cityscapes glitter and shine brightly with future-light, androids behave as though they have souls, and no one is quite what they seem. The hard-bitten noir quality runs through every aspect of Almost Human, as does the connection with Blade Runner, which is not just there in the concept and visuals, but also in the dialogue, with a character at one point talking about a blush response. Of course, the key debate of that movie was whether Deckard was a replicant. It’s a rich seam to mine, and J.H. Wyman’s show is doing it thoughtfully.

At the same time, it’s distinguishing itself from its sci-fi forefathers and brethren, establishing its own unique identity through a new language of crime: flash masks, DNA bombs, tag scramblers. Wyman is delivering on his promise to only feature crimes that are entirely dependent on futuristic technology. This is a sci-fi geek’s dream in the best kind of way. The concepts are clever, but the emotions are always real: Dorian’s pain at the destruction of another synthetic was palpable and moving.

And yet, in a sign that this show has a great line-up in the writers room, possibly the most moving moment of the episode was the tiny robotic giraffe that Kennex hands to the small child of a kidnapping victim. That emotional moments can be handled so quietly and simply amidst the chaos of the day bodes extremely well for the sophisticated nature of future episodes.

All of the show’s emotions are enhanced by The Crystal Method’s beautiful, futuristic and ambient score, which flows through every scene artfully; it’s up there with the best sci-fi scores, in TV and in film. If machines did dream, this is what it would sound like.

Almost Human has started with an astonishingly assured one-two punch. It’s thrilling TV; exhilarating concepts driven by emotional truths. As long as it can give more time and complexity to Captain Maldonado and Agent Stahl, both of whom currently exist in a “popping in and out of scenes with information” status, there’s nothing to stop this show cementing its status as best new drama of the season.

Random uploads:

  • “You scanned my balls.”
  • Gareth from The Office (the UK original) as a specialist in robots. Brilliant.
  • Kennex stabbing his leg and scaring the kids.
  • That giraffe, man. Beautiful.

SouthLAnd’s day of Reckoning

Nothing will ever be the same.

The beginning of the end

The beginning of the end

As season five drew to its genuinely shocking close, the dread that had been building throughout the episode — throughout the season — exploded. It has been the season of John Cooper, played with certified Emmy magnificence to the end by Michael Cudlitz. In effect, he shouldered the entire season like a modern day Atlas, and it was on his tired, weary face that the existential pain of being alive was etched in ever deeper lines as the episodes rolled by. In Reckoning, his agony became complete.

This episode was, without a doubt, SouthLAnd‘s finest moment.

It was expertly scripted by the extraordinarily intelligent Jonathan Lisco, the former lawyer/NYPD Blue writer who has found his true calling with this show. In person, he’s an erudite, precise conversationalist; his scripts feel that way too. The language is honed with the highest skill; whether it’s violent interchanges or quiet interludes, jokes or grief, if you look at his scripts line by line, they are masterpieces of elegance and seamless construction. Nothing is wasted; nothing is uneven. Everything, as Thom Yorke once sang, in its right place.

Reckoning was the best Lisco script yet (despite its lack of Nicki Minaj references). He gave us the final stage of Cooper’s descent into hell, knocking away each and every crutch and support one by one, until the final, most devastating blow of all: Laurie didn’t want to have children with him anymore. The episode was peppered with references to Cooper eating a gun, losing it, disintegrating: in classical Greek style the tragedy wended its way ever closer. Darkness loomed. We just didn’t know how or when it would come.

Even as Lisco was laying down Cooper’s trajectory, he was giving us beautiful (in the mathematical sense as well as the emotional) resolutions to the other two components of SouthLAnd‘s character triptych: Sherman/Bryant, and Adams.

Lydia’s resolution was a nice grace note amidst the darkness: the ever-rumpled Tom Everett Scott returned as Russell Clarke in the last few episodes, and seeing the two of them find their way to a tentative, possible happy ending has been an unexpected pleasure, and yes, in that final, beautifully shot scene on the beach, heartwarming. This is not an adjective I’ve ever used in five seasons of writing about this show, but, of course, they fully earned it, playing out the scene just right, just so. It was a lovely payoff to a relationship that we’ve been feeling and possibly hoping for since the pilot. Regina King and Scott were perfect, and their natural chemistry just flowed.

A rare moment of peace and beauty

A rare moment of peace and beauty

Heartwarming resolutions were in short supply in the other major arc.

The Sammy vs. Ben showdown has been played out so well throughout the season. Ben crossed the line last season in God’s Work, Risk and Thursday. That gave the writers a great platform from which to just f**K with the Ben and Sammy dynamic in season five, and they did a tremendous job with the story they chose: Ben’s complete amorality allowing him to believe that having Chris break into Sammy’s house and tag it with gang signs while stealing the tape was a genuinely okay thing to do.

Can of whup-ass that's about to be opened: not pictured.

Can of whup-ass that’s about to be opened: not pictured.

Spoiler: it wasn’t.

When it came, the storm broke in spectacular fashion. Sammy finally worked it out, and confronted Ben in a tense, fraught, emotional and heartbreaking scene outside the hospital, which ended with a hyper-intense all-out brawl between the two of them. “We were partners,” Ben yells. “That’s right,” spits Sammy. “Were.” And he walks away.

The terse economy of Lisco’s script gave Ben McKenzie and Shawn Hatosy their finest, most accomplished performances of the show to date, in all five seasons.

It's about to be so over

Get ready

The betrayal of trust between these two men who should be brothers, having each other’s back, was devastating. McKenzie was so controlled, giving us Ben’s collapsing emotional world within an intense, desperately holding on performance. Hatosy brought the De Niro/Penn intensity, letting it twist his features as it steadily boiled up from within until he was consumed with heartbreak and rage. Their acting was like f**king opera, man. I bow down to the pair of them: they are two of the finest actors working today. Absolutely extraordinary. That clanging sound you hear is me dropping names: when I hung out with them last year in LA, they were completely relaxed, genial, down to earth, but completely passionate about this show. They transformed their souls for these performances; turned themselves inside out in the way that only truly great actors who trust the material and their director can do.

Their director: Chris f**king Chulack, man. Wow.

He grew up in the shadow of Dodger’s stadium; he knows Los Angeles like few others. Listening to him talk about shooting on the streets of LA is fascinating. It’s no coincidence that SouthLAnd has been the only show on television to, amongst all its other achievements, give us the true fabric of this great city.

Chulack took the show airborne

Chulack took the show airborne

No one shoots LA like Chulack with DP Jimmy Muro at his side. No one. He’s one of my favorite directors, and I am including movie directors on that list. He shoots unflinchingly, architecturally, fluidly, sharply; in the edit, he cuts the episode deep, down to the bone.

Chulack has directed some of the best episodes of TV drama; so when I say this was a career best for him, please see it in that context. It really was a phenomenally directed episode. It layered in the three arcs (tragedy, showdown and possibility), dovetailing them tightly in a way that rushed us forward before we were ready. Because we were never really ready; none of us wanted this thing to end. But it powered its way through the shortest seeming hour in history, even with those extra two minutes.

And it had to end.

None of us were ready for how.

Spoilers.

Cooper’s hellish horror-scape of a season reached a terrible peak in Chaos, as he watched Lucero get executed while they were cuffed together. All Cooper had left was the hope of a child. And Lisco (and the writers room) took that away in Reckoning. They took it all away. They stripped down Cooper’s emotional machinery until he was a wreck of car with no wheels, axles propped up by bricks. He had nothing left. The signs all seemed to point to suicide, and the writers really played this one out in the most close to the line way they could. It seems inconceivable that Cooper didn’t know what he was doing when he refused to throw the gun away in that final scene, instead swaying up to his feet, gun waving. How could he not know they would shoot him? We’ve seen it mentioned before, suicide by cop: wave a gun and wait for them to fire. But… but… he was in the killing rage, red mist clouding everything: sound and visuals were hazy, slowed down, disorientating. Maybe he was on his way to putting his hands up in the air.

A decision is about to be made...

A decision is about to be made…

We may never know. That’s the beauty of SouthLAnd.

Instead, (depending on how this cliffhanger plays out) we might just be left with the memory of Cooper, an extraordinary cop, played in the most grounded, compassionate way by Cudlitz. Has anyone ever done more to earn an Emmy? I don’t think so. Cudlitz has proven himself to be the soul of the show this season, the guardian of all that it stands for. To see his portrayal of Cooper’s helpless descent into loneliness, depression, hopelessness, and then, finally, the heart-rending breakdown of his command presence; it’s been revelatory acting. I’m going to miss Cooper.

There may be no more “hey numbnuts.”

Shit.

Cudlitz did groundbreaking work this season: Emmy better reward him.

This is a possible eulogy for Cooper (those were pretty serious gunshot wounds, but to quote Rob Thomas, there’s dead, and then there’s TV dead). He was one of TV’s most iconic, epic characters. One of TV’s most essential characters. But I don’t want this to be a eulogy for the show; I fully believe it will come back for a sixth season, if not on TNT, maybe on another network like FX or AMC.

I don’t want this show to go.

It means a huge amount to me. I’m not exaggerating — not even a bit — when I say it’s changed my life. It was the spark and the ignition for my TV scriptwriting. It showed me how to write TV scripts; how to tell stories in the most real and most stripped back way; how to create characters that live and breathe and are real. It’s taught me so much, and everything I’ve learned from writing scripts has deeply influenced the way I write my novels. Now everything I write is, I hope, SouthLAnd-style; it’s the standard I aim for, even if I don’t always get there, it gets me further than I would have otherwise. It’s led me to Los Angeles; to meetings with film companies; to an extraordinary hour and a half sitting at a bar having a brilliant conversation with Cheo Coker and Cudlitz. It’s given me amazing experiences. It’s brought me friends (Deb, Bill, Lisa and others).

From the opening shot of the pilot I was hooked; by the time they played the National’s Fake Empire in the final scenes, I was in love with the show. It’s only gotten more intense.

I’ve never been so emotionally attached to a show; so, no, I don’t want it to end. None of us do.

All we can do is let TNT know, keep sending the message.

And keep praying that for SouthLAnd, this isn’t end of watch.

SL R Dewey

SouthLAnd: Chaos

Chaos was outstanding.

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

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

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

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

And then they get taken.

Beaten.

Their belts and uniforms removed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Random Witness Statements:

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

SouthLAnd “The Felix Paradox”: Blue Angels

The Felix Paradox was an unusual episode. It had stunt casting (Shaq), genuinely delightful surprise casting (Russell’s back!), and multiple muscularly handled game changing moments for virtually all of the characters. Yet, perhaps paradoxically, it felt somewhat insubstantial.

One of the key reasons is this: everything else in the episode was dwarfed by Jamie McShane’s towering, gut-wrenching, why-isn’t-he-a-regular-yet, performance. Not even Shaq could rise up to that challenge.

Jamie McShane. Emmy not pictured.

Jamie McShane. Emmy not pictured.

McShane has been grittily brilliant in every episode to date, always breaking out of his all too brief screen time with charismatic and intense acting. Full disclosure, I have met him, and he’s a great guy in person; long overdue an iconic episode like this one. Aaron Rahsaan Thomas wrote this episode, his second of season five. It didn’t blast away like his first, but man was it good, and it gave McShane the arc he needed to really let loose: the watch commander had to hold it together after being told that his son had been shot. In several key scenes, McShane broke our hearts. Again and again and again. The initial breakdown; the barely holding it together in front of the cops at roll call, before crumbling and having Cooper take over for him; then the utterly heart-rending scene when Lydia handed Hill his son’s belongings from the crime scene. The way McShane told Thomas’s beautifully written Blue Angels story was just too much; too painful, too raw. 100% SouthLAnd style. It was epic. It must surely guarantee McShane a promotion to regular status, if, no, WHEN, the show gets its sixth season. C’mon, producers — you found a way to get Lydia into uniform; you can find a way to get Hill out on the streets. The campaign starts here.

Elsewhere, the show worked overtime to catch up with the other characters. Cooper had his moment with Laurie, when he finally accepted that he wanted a family; Cudlitz was charming and somehow heartbreaking in his quiet performance (coming as it did after that extremely empathetic and compassionate moment helping out Hill during roll call). Lucero was revealed to be lying about the fact that he has been separated from his wife for eighteen months (a smallish revelation for a new character, which didn’t really register, although it was written well, and perfectly acted by Anthony Ruivivar). Lydia had to throw down with Ruben over whether to pursue crooked cops in a nicely written and portrayed arc.

But the most interesting moments were saved for Sherman and Bryant.

You gotta hand it to Thomas; he can lay down classic scenes in old school SouthLAnd style, and they’re an absolute pleasure to watch unfold. The way that Bryant and Sherman’s pivotal scene started with them leading a lost little girl back to her house, featuring some truly great humor (“I’m contact, you’re cover…”), then segued into a tense search of the house and discovery of weapons and drugs, then escalated unstoppably into a dangerous screaming match between Sammy and the gangbanger — there was a real flow as it covered a range of emotions and styles — and it was a great head-to-head that never lost momentum. Hatosy was an ANIMAL in this scene, deploying the Prowl to full effect and then some. He’s been quietly intense this season; it was great to see him tear up a scene like this.

SouthLAnd: in your FACE.

SouthLAnd: in your FACE.

On the flip side, Sherman is f**king cold! What a devastating reveal that was, juxtaposing Sammy’s utter terror running through his gang-tagged house looking for little Nate, with the fact that Sherman was responsible (sending his girlfriend’s brother to steal the incriminating Tammi-Sammy fight tape). And it was all to save his own skin. Damn. Sherman is stampeding into a moral darkness from which it seems utterly impossible to return.

Sammy Bryant getting ready to go to war.

Sammy Bryant getting ready to go to war.

This revelation made Sherman’s reactions in the opening freeze frame more understandable. And it was a cool trick, returning to the opener right at the very end of the episode. The only issue was, we’d been waiting to find out what the hell it was all about in ever increasing anticipation and fear. Yet once we caught up and went past the photo flash… nothing happened. Sure, it was one of those internal ‘freight train coming at you’ moments; but the thing is, we’d already been through that collision. This was just the aftermath. The moments before the freeze frame promised maximum intensity; the reality was Sherman leaning against a wall.

Strong is the power of the dark side... seductive it is.

Strong is the power of the dark side…

I get it, and as a SouthLAnd ending, it was great; exactly what the show does best (the knowledge of just how far Sherman will go is terrifying, and a huge game-changer for him and therefore the show). But, oddly, although it was a perfect ending, it wasn’t a perfect return to the freeze frame; not when you’ve very clearly built expectations for some juicy tension and action.

This season as a whole, the opening/return to freeze frames have struggled with being as high impact as they need to be. This episode’s started as the strongest of the season to date; it just didn’t follow through on its promise. Which is a shame, as it was building on the biggest shift in the show this season; Sherman completing his descent into ice-cold amorality in stunning, shocking fashion.

This is a show designed to surprise, and that’s one of the many, many things we all love about it. This episode generally did a brilliant job of unleashing its truth grenades. There is no doubt, SouthLAnd is 100% uncompromising and 100% true to itself.

TV needs this show.

Random Witness Statements:

  • “Hiding in a closet, firing blindly… what kind of asshole does that?” / “A dead one.”
  • LAPD is the biggest gang in the city.
  • “We don’t fight fair, we fight to win.”
  • Tom Everett Scott back in the house! 
  • Surprised it’s taken five seasons to get a Crockett and Tubbs reference in there: great job, Aaron!
  • Cameron Duncan as DP, Stephen Cragg as director: great visuals, L.A. looked beautiful — loved Lydia’s Dodge Charger gleaming like a sci-fi spaceship.
  • “You will not embarrass me. I will f**k you up before that happens…” Damn, Annie Monroe. 
  • Blue Angels: devastating.
  • Seriously, make Jamie McShane a regular.