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.
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SouthLAnd “Off-Duty”: How to be awesome

As regular viewers (and if you’re not, start now), you all know that SouthLAnd sets an extraordinarily high bar with every episode.

Sammy Bryant on the move, SouthLAnd style

Sammy Bryant on the move, SouthLAnd style

No other show is constructed and executed as tightly, precisely and brutally as this one. The scripts are taut, ferocious, bulletproof. The whole scriptwriting tenet of “get into the scene as late as possible and get out as soon as you can” is taken to a whole other level by the SouthLAnd writers’ room. They elevate that beyond being an artform; it’s writing like a martial art, where the slightest movement can result in you being slammed to the ground emotionally, winded, breathless. You can find yourself feeling sad without even knowing why, because they just pulled some of that ninja shit on you.

Point being, when I say that Zack Whedon’s script raised the bar again, I’m really saying something. It’s not easy for a new writer to the room to do that. It’s a testament to SouthLAnd‘s writer selection process that Whedon is the second scribe this season (after Aron Rahsaan Thomas) to ace their debut script.

Sure, he comes from Hollywood writing royalty. A veritable dynasty, if you will. You all know about his brother Joss (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Avengers to name just a few), their father, their grandfather. Another of the brothers, Jed, has been working with Joss for years, and has a major production role in the new S.H.I.E.L.D. pilot (which ABC needs to order to series like, now). Of course, that doesn’t guarantee that Zack would be able to knock it out the park; but the fact that he did, spectacularly so, isn’t entirely surprising.

One area which the show hasn’t quite been hitting the target this season has been the opening few minutes leading into the freeze/photo flash voiceover. They’ve lacked a certain oomph in season five, for the most part, compared to previous seasons. Zack changed all that, giving us just a brief glimpse of an off duty Sammy creeping up on an unseen perp screaming and firing a handgun at civilians. Staying off-duty is “easier said than done,” said the voiceover, followed by the customary title letting us know how many hours earlier the episode was jumping back. It’s usually in the double figures, 15, say, or 17; this episode was tight, and just took us back 5 hours. That immediately upped the pressure and the stakes, and in fact we reached Sammy’s off duty shooter moment in the middle of Act One.

Easier said than done

Easier said than done

This script meant business.

Sammy’s takedown of a huge, topless guy shooting at cars and taking a hostage set up a nice contrast to Sherman’s “poster boy” arc; “Come on,” Sherman tells Bryant shortly afterwards, “don’t tell me you didn’t love every minute playing bad-ass for those cameras.” Hatosy’s answering smile was pure gold; hell yeah he liked it. It was a nice character moment for these two, whose relationship has often been spiky and fraught. The continuing saga of Tammy’s assault charges against Sammy further bolstered the Sherman/Hatosy friendship, with Sherman unequivocally letting Bryant know he’s got his back.

Sherman’s relationship with Cooper was decidedly more frosty.

You can never go back

You can never go back

Only the writers know why, but the decision has been made to keep these two as icy and fractured as possible. It’s rough, given the emotional history that they have; the show was born from their TO/new boot relationship, and one of its biggest emotional payoffs was Sherman saving Cooper’s life by getting him to rehab. Since then, in two seasons, their only contact has been an awkward nod partway through season four, and the excruciating and heartbreaking conversation in this episode, which started awkwardly, ended abruptly, and played out with Sherman and Cooper at opposite ends of the bar, ignoring each other for the rest of the night (until Sherman got his booty call). It’s good drama, but it’s f**king annoying too. There’s surely a lot of mileage to had be had from playing the two of them off each other in a more sustained way as Sherman develops his true cop style while Cooper winds his down. Still, SouthLAnd thrives on moving forward relentlessly, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s sad that their bond is broken, but that’s the world of the show; things get broken, and you move on.

Whedon’s script played all of this to perfection though, along with Cooper’s increasing conflict at the prospect of possibly leaving the force, and in contrast to his short friendship with Ben, his deep, everlasting history and friendship with Dewey. Whedon did a great job with all their scenes, and gave Dewey all the best lines — Tommy Howell nailed every last one of of them in what was a bravura episode for him.

Cooper wasn’t the only one that Sherman wasn’t showing the love to. That booty call he followed up on wasn’t from Brooke, who he called his girlfriend for the first time at the start of the episode; it was from a girl he met on patrol.

Sherman's "oh shit I just called her my girlfriend" face

Sherman’s “oh shit I just called her my girlfriend” face

So giving a girl your card so she can call if she needs to is definitely #1 in the Sherman playbook. I hope they play this out; Annie Monroe, formerly of the pop-punk LA girl band The Like, has been a great addition to the cast, always making the most of her brief screen time with naturalistic charm and enviable snark.

But you know we have to talk about Regina.

Off-Duty was directed by the incredible Regina King, her first time behind the camera on SouthLAnd. And it wasn’t like they gave her an easy one to help her out of the gate. No way. This was a brutal script to shoot: multiple tense and complicated action sequences, so many high stakes and key to the series emotional and character scenes, and some really huge moments for Lydia to act. King was a phenomenal director.

With formidable DP extraordinaire Dana Gonzales at her side, she gave us one of the most kinetic, emotional and visceral episodes to date. The action sequences had a hyper-vivid quality, the locations perfectly backdropped the emotional arcs; the whole thing was as emotional as her performances usually are, and in the same way — subtle but devastating.

All in all, this was one of SouthLAnd‘s strongest ever episodes, a great debut on the show for Whedon as writer and King as director. Their pairing produced TV gold. This show knows exactly how to move fast and stay alive. It’s thrilling.

 

Random Witness Statements:

  • “Amazing to think that for every one of those people there’s a pair of disappointed parents…”
  • Sherman is fan of the arts, apparently
  • The subtle handling of Sherman tipping off vice about his former weed dealer
  • King’s acting opposite the serial killer on death row
  • EVERY SINGLE SCENE WITH DEWEY
  • Cooper loves his cactus garden like Dewey loves kale
  • This really was a brilliantly constructed episode by Whedon
  • “Guy’s a monster, and now he’s going to reap the whirlwind”

 

How to be awesome (look closely, you'll see it)

How to be awesome