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

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SouthLAnd Season 5: Hats And Bats

We hold cops to a higher standard because we give them a gun and a badge.

Officer Ben Sherman, facing stark realities

Officer Ben Sherman, facing stark realities

Only problem with that is, we recruit them from the human race.

With that opening voiceover and freezeframe, SouthLAnd started its fifth season by dropping us into hell without a parachute. Each season gets tighter, hits harder, jabs more lethally and precisely, knocks you down with even more viscerality. Hats And Bats continued this tradition with blade-sharpened verve and ferociousness, while, as always, somehow finding time to inject genuinely heartbreaking emotion. It brings you to your knees, then breaks your heart.

This episode was written by the exemplary Jonathan Lisco, directed by the legendary Chris Chulack, and lit by lighting genius and maestro Jimmy Muro. Lisco’s scripts always carry his signature: an extraordinary sense of intelligence and precision, whether he’s serving up something shocking, hardcore emotional, funny, or just general truths about humanity. It sounds casual when it’s written out in a list like that: but there’s nothing casual about it. It takes hard work and skill to pull off. Lisco delivers all those things in elegant scripts that just flow. There’s always a powerful core of great character work that keeps the script rolling; all those other elements are subtly intergated on the fly. Which just happens to be the definition of great writing.

For example, the scene in the swimming pool/bath house: utterly horrific, over so quickly we never know what was going on – but it’s a complex, almost wordless character moment for Sherman and Bryant. Then, later in the episode, their scene dealing with the old lady whose sister was murdered (which included a nice shout out to writer/supervising producer Cheo Coker, who moved from SouthLAnd to NCIS: LA), was another example of the scene getting in, getting out, but slamming you with serious emotions on the way. And Lisco was also responsible for one of the funniest lines of the show in all five seasons:

Jerry: “We have a permit.”

Cooper: “To be a dipshit?”

Of course, Chulack  and Muro killed it. Of course they did. They shot and lit it with brutal, pared-down style, keeping the camera close and low to the ground. It was the kind of lighting and directing that almost stripped itself away, making you feel as though you were immersed in nothing other than the rawest of truths in every beat, every scene.

Which brings us to the acting.

Damn.

This may be the finest ensemble in TV right now.

Ben McKenzie and Shawn Hatosy nailed the fractious, buddy/brotherly relationship between Sherman and Bryant. McKenzie portrayed Sherman’s unease at his newest level of celebrity, while Hatosy was utterly compelling as a father under huge pressure, dealing with a crazy ex-wife, barely controlling his rage from boiling over. Lisco’s script had Sherman and Bryant butting heads, cracking jokes, having each other’s backs, and McKenzie and Hatosy handled every single beat with extreme presence, energy and truth. Regina King showed us a mother barely holding it together as she dealt with the immense stress of being a single mom, as well as the immense stress of being a detective; King was incredible, as she always is.

And then there was Cudlitz.

He gave us an astonishing spectrum of emotions in this episode. Lisco gave him great material to work with — having to be even more hard-ass than usual with his newest boot, an ex-military powerhouse with attitude to spare — as well as peeling back the layers to show the lonely soul beneath the surface who just craves companionship, and, maybe, even though he’d never admit it, love. Brilliant work from Cudlitz from start to finish.

Dewey. Yep.

Tommy Howell is a legend, and it’s great to see him promoted from recurring to regular.

On every level, this really is a show that grabs you and doesn’t let you go. It makes you feel like it just threw you off a balcony. There’s a vertiginous sense of falling that pulses through this show — that dread is part of its power, because anything can happen at any time.

All in all, this was a truly fantastic start to what promises to be an amazing fifth season for SouthLAnd. It’s a show that just keeps on getting better, season after season. That’s a rarity in TV drama. This show really is one of a kind; can’t say thank you to TNT enough for believing in it too.

Random witness statements:

  • Few things are more pleasing at this point than hearing”hey numbnuts!”
  • Jeez, Sherman — Sammy just really wants to clean up some blood this episode, okay?
  • Coker
  • “Welcome to the info age. Instant riots — just add tweets.”
  • So much screaming in this episode
  • Bryant on Sherman’s new haircut: “They remaking Taxi Driver?”

Why TNT should give SouthLAnd a season 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Southland will break your heart (spoiler)

It was almost too much. Maybe it was too much. Code 4 came to an exhausting, traumatic end with the simplest of shots but the most raw, devastating moment in the show’s history. It was an absolute emotional savaging for the viewer.

Written by Will Rokos, directed by Felix Alcala, this was the tightest episode of Southland to date. It had everything you would want from an hour of TV drama: the humor was rawer, more visceral; the emotional reversals came hard and fast; the highs were higher, the lows were worse. And that was before the end, when we watched Shawn Hatosy and Yara Martinez come apart in each other’s arms. Just a held shot of the two of them, gasping for air, struggling to breathe with the absolute fact of what had just happened. The death of a partner, friend and husband. Grief is handled in many different ways in television shows. I’m not sure I’ve seen it handled like this, in its most unfiltered form. It was awful to watch, and I mean that as the highest possible compliment.

Hatosy in particular was astonishing, delivering an aggressively compelling and forceful performance throughout, culminating in his flawless portrayal of Bryant’s emotional disintegration.

The way Code 4 was directed by Feliz Alcala was almost ethereal in its quiet intensity. The opening flash forward was haunting, just Sammy shaking, lens flare, a barely moving camera, and then the scream. By the time we reached that moment for real, the knowledge of what it meant was almost unbearable, and when the moment continued, even though we desperately didn’t want it to, it was emotionally horrific. Alcala stayed close to the truth throughout, and we felt it. One key example: as the helicopter flashed the spotlight on Nate, moments before the end, he held up four fingers, signaling “code 4,” no further assistance necessary. Such a simple moment, made brutal by what followed. Southland excels at such simplicity and poetically retroactive impact.

Will Rokos wrote a tough, unflinching script, finding time amongst the darkness for the funniest moments we’ve seen in this show, which of course made the ending much harder to handle. The writers have done an amazing job this season, and have consistently pulled off an extremely difficult trick: not only have they kept the show subtly serialized and moving forward, but each episode is perfectly constructed as an entry point into the Southland world. That means new viewers could join at any point and be able to jump right in. The writers have encoded each episode this season with enough information to key the new viewer in to the relationships, but they’ve integrated it so carefully that it doesn’t interfere with the flow of the show for regular viewers. It’s a clever move on the part of the producers, and it’s working. Ratings are up, and Code 4 (and the wonderfully loyal fans) prompted Southland to trend for the first time on Twitter. It seems very hopeful that this means good things for the show’s survival and renewal by TNT.

But Kevin Alejandro will be sorely missed. Southland‘s loss is True Blood‘s gain. Alejandro was such a great part of the fabric of Southland, and did tremendous work. Kudos to him for making Nate Moretta such a compelling, soulful, and popular character.

The return of Southland: 3.1 “Let It Snow”

The highly anticipated Season Three of Southland began on TNT with “Let It Snow,” an episode that continued the series’ signature high-impact simplicity with an elegantly propulsive momentum.

The writers (executive producer John Wells, and the creator of the show, Ann Biderman) had a complex task on their hands with this one: keeping the show running at full throttle on a newly reduced off-network budget, while making the episode fully accessible to newer viewers, essential for the show’s continued survival.

Southland has traditionally never made many concessions to the viewer in the way it tells its stories, which has always been one of its strengths as a drama. Its world is detailed and real, and we need to catch up and keep up, just like the patrol cops and detectives in the complex situations they encounter. Wells and Biderman negotiated the complex demands of this season opener skilfully; sketching with the lightest of touches enough details of the key players’ back stories to allow new viewers to know them, while accelerating them into new challenges. There were delicate echoes of the pilot “Unknown Trouble,” and also of the last episode aired, “Maximum Deployment,” but these echoes were artfully reframed, with quiet evolutions shaded in.

Southland has always been a minimally presented, high impact drama, but this latest episode brutally honed that style even closer to the bone. Each scene was a brutal street haiku, containing just a few, perfectly chosen details that illuminated whole worlds, telling us almost nothing but showing us everything. “Let It Snow” was a masterclass in starting scenes late and ending them fast. The actors had never had long to make their impact, and they took advantage of every precious second. Michael Cudlitz was the MVP of this episode as John Cooper, fighting his excruciating, debilitating back injuries, and desperately begging for the help of his ex-wife to sustain his painkiller addiction. His tragic, haunting expression as she rushed away from him in tears was the key moment of the episode, locating the show’s heart amidst the chaos and tension. Ben McKenzie also did great work executing the path the writers seem to be laying out for his role, as Ben Sherman drifts from the hotshot, by-the-numbers rookie, to a more experienced, weary, rule-breaking patrol cop. Regina King hit her emotional beats compellingly as Lydia Adams, perpetually dealing with the horror that her detective faces, and never quite getting numb to it.

All in all, it was a fascinating start to season three, with director Christopher Chulack combining great character work with tough, almost unbearably tense set pieces and raw street-level action. It promised much for the nine episodes to come. It’s great to have this show back, and on the leading edge, where it’s always been; where it truly belongs.