The Tick: The Optimism We All Need

The first six episodes of Amazon’s new version of THE TICK hail from the character’s original creator Ben Edlund, and they are amazing.

Tick and Arthur

Voice of Darth Maul (and essential player on Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s SPACED), Peter Serafinowicz plays the titular tick. And the co-host of Blank Check With Griffin And David, one of the greatest podcasts of ALL TIME, Griffin Newman plays Tick’s sidekick, Arthur. In an outstanding, statement-of-intent performance, Newman laces his character with beautiful layers of vulnerability and fragility, as he battles mental illness and grief, and struggles with the notion that he might actually be a superhero. His twitchy sensitivity plays perfectly against Serafinowicz’s boomingly cheerful hilarity and positivity. They’re a double act for our times, representing the strobelike oscillation many of us have suffered throughout this year, bouncing between the emotional likes of Taylor Swift’s “I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time,” and Newman’s tremulous, heartbreaking, not-at-all-convincing, “I’m a really together person.” Let’s face it: We’re all Arthur right now, and we all need a Tick to show us the way.

The show is a goddamn delight, full of hundreds of throwaway zingers, some slicing observations, and some excellently named villains (The Terror, Overkill… Lint…). It’s bright, bold, beautiful, warm, compassionate, heartbreaking and sensitive in its handling of mental illness… and still really funny. It’s a tonal masterpiece, bouncing merrily along its high wire and never missing a step. The show opens with Newman’s Arthur struggling hard to just function at all, and ends (this half of its season) with a jaw-droppingly brilliant joke that leaves you cracking up as the credits roll. In between, The Tick rolls deep through genuine emotions while slinging jokes like ninja stars.

Tick Dot and Arthur

It’s not just Newman and Serafinowicz who excel. Valorie Curry is quite frankly extraordinary as Arthur’s paramedic sister Dot. She combines razor-sharp Friends-era Jennifer Aniston comedic chops with Mulholland Drive-era Naomi Watts emotionality, in a fresh, utterly present performance that’s feisty and magnetic. Jackie Earle Haley is in monstrously villainous form as Arthur’s nemesis The Terror, and Yara Martinez brings an unexpectedly empathetic streak to the super-evil electro-fingered Lint.

For such a quirky show, it’s directed as though it’s the Dark Knight, in full 2.40:1 ultra-widscreen, and with genuinely amazing cinematography. This is not a surprise, since Christopher Nolan’s DARK KNIGHT trilogy DP Wally Pfister directs the opening episodes, and sets the tone: super-sharp visuals that simultaneously elevate and ground the material. Spending time and money on making the show look so good pays off tremendously, and gives the cast a powerful environment to play against. Also, the sentient A.I. Danger Boat (it makes sense when you see it) looks and sounds like something out of a Marvel movie.

Tick skyline

THE TICK is essential viewing. Get yourself some Amazon Prime, and watch these first six episodes. It’s unlike anything else on TV, and Newman is the hero we didn’t know we needed… but who we really f**king needed. As an actor he’s achieving his dream, and in this role he shows us that maybe we can all achieve ours.

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SouthLAnd: Coker plays the blues

In Fixing A Hole, writer Cheo Hodari Coker got to play the blues with his script, laying down classic grooves, finessing new phrasings, and blowing hard when he needed to. This script was like the jazz in Kerouac’s On The Road: raw, real, skillful and powerful.

The episode was also notable for finally bringing Yara Martinez in from the periphery of the show. She has a quietly hypnotic acting style that consumes her scenes in the best kind of way. Up until now, playing Nate’s widow Mariella Moretta, she’s been doing beautiful, haunting work with the briefest of screen time, but in this episode she got to take center stage with her warm, emotional artistry. In fact, this was something of a theme: Fixing A Hole was all about taking control, moving forward, taking your moment in the spotlight. What you do with that moment is what defines you.

It was a simple blues in some ways, asking the question, what makes a man or a woman who they really are?

Whether it was Lydia and Josie wrangling their alcoholic witness, Cooper and Sherman chasing down leads to find out what had really happened to 9 year old Michael Peterson, or Sammy taking his suspect out to the desert and making him dig his potential grave, the characters had to deal with or face up to their own darkness, or the darkness of those around them.

Coker invoked old time Hollywood as well as his usual perfectly chosen and delivered array of pop culture references, everything from Charlie’s Angels to Transformers (C. Thomas Howell nailed Dewey’s line, “where’s Optimus Prime when you need him?”), to the king of crime and old-school 40s Hollywood, James Ellroy himself. “I had a callback for L.A. Confidential,” says Lydia’s witness as they have dinner at the Pacific Dining Car (“James Ellroy’s favorite restaurant”), “then I found out Kim Basinger was interested. Story of my life.”

These kinds of references really make the script pop; they give it swagger and life. Coker is a master at this game, but he can write lines that fly at you like roundhouses. When Sammy tries to persuade a bank teller to waive a rule to make things easier on Mariella as she deals with Nate’s accounts, he clinches his case with “he was killed protecting your right to give her shit.” Damn. Elsewhere, Michael Cudlitz had the line of the episode, as Cooper loses his shit with a social worker. She tells him she has a master’s degree, to which he explodes, “And I have a PhD in street, who gives a shit.”

The episode was beautifully shot by Christopher Chulack, who is a maestro of the RED One cameras and the way they capture light. Chulack always finds the most interesting and yet utterly unobtrusive angles from which to play each scene. Allison Anders did a beautiful job finding the angles of truth in her episode Sideways, and Chulack did the same here.

Interestingly, SouthLAnd has always been deliberately sparse musically — aside from the pilot and one or two episodes after that in season one, it never used soundtrack music. That changed with Coker’s Punching Water episode earlier this season, which featured a montage to music. And with Fixing A Hole, Coker brings music to the streets again, introducing the great, booming blues song “Something On Your Mind” by Big Jay McNeely (I think this is the right version), first within a scene (as Sammy shows up to get his suspect), but then over the final shot of Sammy coming to grips with all kinds of realizations about himself, and his complex relationship with Nate’s widow. In many ways, SouthLAnd is the raw, painful ballad of Los Angeles, and Coker is one of the show’s finest players.

SouthLAnd: “if you love her, hold out”

“Even when cops do everything right, things can still go sideways.”

The show opened full throttle in the midst of a wild car chase, moving fast until Dewey and Chickie’s patrol car ploughed right into a pedestrian; and we stopped.

These flash forwards and freeze frames, SouthLAnd‘s unique signature starting points, have become an art form in themselves: that brief burst of critical action, accelerated then punched out as the images freezes, and the voiceover delivers the driving force behind the episode.

It’s the rush of the episode distilled into brutally compact form. A brutal street haiku, which essentially is what SouthLAnd is. The life of cops on the streets in highly charged shards of meaning; rushes of emotional, psychological and physical violence. At its best, the show is primal, relentlessly pursuing the truth of what it means to be human as though it was a fleeing suspect; one that the show captures every time. At its heart, the show is a stark look at humanity through the lens of the LAPD. It takes place in the bleached bright glare and the dark shadows of the city.

This week’s episode, Sideways, was in many ways classic SouthLAnd. The director, much respected indie helmer Allison Anders, did a beautiful job in capturing the starkness of the human drama, the simplicity of the high impact moments, and the contrast between oversaturated light and deep shadows that gives the show its visual and emotional texture.

Thanks to Anders, Sideways felt like a deeper version of the show. Assisted by regular DP (and last week’s director) Jimmy Muro, Anders crafted a heightened and more brutal version of SouthLAnd. Jonathan Lisco’s script delivered a precise distillation of emotional trauma and revelations that, although they were not shocking, were still heartbreaking.

From the opening, as Dewey and Chickie’s patrol car hurtled unstoppably into the pedestrian crossing the street, through Sammy’s steady, inexorable unraveling, to Lydia’s beautifully moving scenes with dying murder witness Henry Watts (subtly, fascinatingly and compellingly portrayed by Malcom Barrett), this episode came at you hard.

In previous endings this season, we’ve seen Ben Mckenzie’s Sherman break down with the shattering revelations from his mother, Michael Cudlitz’s Cooper delivering his primal howl of pain in the desert, Shawn Hatosy’s Sammy facing the end of his marriage, and the loss of Kevin Alejandro as Nate. In the frame this week for the total disintegration of everything they believed in: Detective Lydia Adams. By the time Russell delivered the news that we all surely already knew, Anders was expert enough to stop everything and just hold the close up on Regina King. We didn’t need the usual restless kineticism of the show anymore: we needed to be still, because everything was happening in Regina King’s extraordinary portrayal of Lydia’s reaction to her ultimate betrayal. While Shawn Hatosy has been manfully tearing this season away from his costars with a steadily building raw hurt intensity, Regina King took three minutes to take the show for herself. With her face filling the screen, King showed us in beautiful physical detail what it looks like when your closest friend tears your heart out.

King had already given us some wonderful work earlier in the episode with her moving and intense scenes with Malcolm Barrett, playing the witness caught in the crossfire of a parking lot shootout. Barrett gave a nuanced, vivid performance. At first, they flirted at the scene as Lydia worked him for information. Then, in true SouthLAnd style, we found out that “this man doesn’t have a concussion — he has a bullet in his head.” When Lydia rejoined Henry Watts, he was dying slowly, although he didn’t know it. They talked, in one of SouthLAnd’s most beautifully written scenes to date. Watts described falling in love with his fiance, who was on her way to the hospital, and even prompted Lydia to share her love history. By this time, Watts knew he didn’t have much time left, and he asked Lydia flat out, “would you go under the knife for the one percent chance at living, or try to hold out, to say goodbye?”

Sideways was one of the few episodes this season to feature everybody, and it was well handled by Lisco and Anders. Everyone had their moment. The always welcome Michael McGrady tried to keep Hatosy in check; Yara Martinez was beautifully understated and moving in her few scenes with Hatosy. Cudlitz and McKenzie continued to perfect their double act while dealing with rogue ice cream sellers, until they found themselves caught up in Dewey’s tragedy, while Arija Bareikis did some heartbreaking work as Chickie, dealing with the aftermath of the fatal accident.

Anders’ camera was restless throughout, frequently glancing up at the bleached-bone glare of the LA sky, or prowling close to the action. She did an awesome job with what she said on Twitter was her first ever car chase on film — you wouldn’t know it, because it was one of the most visceral, thrilling car chases we’ve seen on the show, right up to the fatal collision, and the subsequent near-shootout at the intersection of Yucca and Argyll, the Capitol Records building in the background. This sequence illustrated the way that SouthLAnd stays street level, keeping it fast-moving, real and detailed. Sideways was in some ways an emotional car chase that didn’t slow down until it was too late. By that point, Lydia was devastated, as were we. I hope that the show itself doesn’t stop, and accelerates into a fourth season and beyond. With “Live + 7” ratings of over 3 million and rising, the signs are good.

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.