Friday, April 12, 2013

Ticket to the Greatest Show on Earth

Television is not what it used to be - thankfully. When I look back at the shows I watched as a kid, television shows mostly consisted of pretty people (or pretty people being made to look less pretty), fixed sets, and canned laughter. Sure, there were dramas on TV then too - but when I look back at the dramas of that era, they were soapier than my last bubble bath. Very little of what I watched was realistic - life is much messier than how it appeared on TV. This all changed when I started high school and My So-Called Life came on the air. I distinctly remember this show being the first show I completely related to... I had friends like Angela had. I knew teachers like those on the show. I got zits and wore ugly flannel just like the stars did. It was awesome... and short-lived. 

I've watched plenty of shows in the near 20 years since that show went off the air. And sure, many of them have grabbed my attention long enough that I stuck around for the entire season. But a lot of what has been on the air has been glamorized and unrealistic. Carrie Bradshaw couldn't live in her awesome apartment on the Upper East Side, live only on Cosmopolitans, and wear $500 shoes on a freelance writer's salary. My friends don't wear flattering scrubs like those worn by the cast of Grey's Anatomy. And cops/detectives are rarely perfectly put together after a chase or fight scene like many of the cop dramas that have popped up in the last 10 years. 

When SouthLAnd promos started airing on NBC in 2009, my interest was piqued almost immediately. When I saw Regina King was cast, I knew I had to tune in (love her). When I heard Michael Cudlitz (who I loved from Band of Brothers) and Ben McKenzie (of OC fame) had also signed on, I knew it was something worth staying up late for. Even if it had been very similar to the other cop shows out there, these stars alone made it something I knew would end up on my weekly rotation.

Through the years, I've watched as the show moved from NBC (rather unceremoniously) to TNT. I've seen the core cast shrink from a focus on many to just a few. The cast isn't always pretty (sorry Shawn - your elbows are still beautiful!), the story isn't always happy, and the characters don't always do the right thing. These characters are so authentic that you sometimes forget that this is a scripted show and not a documentary. I remember being overjoyed when I saw Kevin Alejandro alive and well on another TV show after Nate's shocking death in Season 3. I was shocked that Michael Cudlitz didn't really have a back problem. And to be honest, I don't know that I'll ever be able to like Emily Bergl, who plays Tammi Bryant on the show (Tammi is so awful!). 

The show has matured into a very well oiled machine in its 5th year, its supporting cast as good as its core in every episode. The season kicked off at just the right speed - not too much too fast, but just shocking enough to remind me of its brilliance. I could write on and on about every episode of the show thus far, but instead I wanted to just give my thanks and recognition to my regular favorites. 

Regina King/Lydia Adams: If played by any other actress, Detective Lydia Adams may be a hard one to love. She's smart, she's tough, and she has a shell so hard to crack we rarely get much insight into her inner thoughts and emotions. Regina King's portrayal of Detective Adams gives an unexpected vulnerability to such a tough cop. Through her, we not only see Detective Adams' physical strength, but we also get glimpses of the pain she feels in working some of the cases she is forced to review. Regina is a master of showing emotion with no words - it's really powerful. I love seeing her portray Lydia as a mom because (in true SouthLAnd form) we don't see Lydia immediately change as a result. Lydia wants to be a mom, but she also still wants to be her - a challenge I think many independent, driven women with children often face. Regina has handled this challenge with grace, her eyes telling of Lydia's internal struggle when the words don't.

Shawn Hatosy/Sammy Bryant: Sammy Bryant is best defined as loyal, really to a fault. He was loyal to his awful wife, he's loyal to his partners (good and bad), and he's loyal to his job. He holds himself highly accountable and believes he has very high ethics, although we have watched as he struggles to maintain this aura through each challenge he faces. Like Cooper, Sammy really could use a break. He always tries to do the right thing, but the fates test him repeatedly to the point of almost breaking. I worry that this may be the season that he finally does. 

With other actors, Sammy may have easily been portrayed as either cocky or weak. Shawn Hatosy is such an affable person, he really makes you want to root for Sammy even when you don't necessarily agree with him. The tenderness he lends to Sammy's character is not confused for weakness; rather, Shawn's tenderness comes across as genuine and strong. Shawn's poise helps viewers see Sammy as one tough cop, a street-smart helluva guy that has earned the respect of his peers and the perps he puts behind bars. I fall a little more for Sammy (and Shawn) with each episode.

Ben McKenzie/Ben Sherman: One of the first people you meet in Season 1 of SouthLAnd is Ben Sherman. As a wide-eyed rookie, he has few words and lots of heart. He didn't come to this job because it was easy money - he did it because he wanted to make a difference. Oh, Ben Sherman, how I wish the boot version of you would come back!

Before SouthLAnd, I was only vaguely aware of Ben McKenzie. I had a lot of friends who loved The OC when it aired, and they also tuned in to SouthLAnd if only to see their precious Ryan Atwood back on the small screen. Because I was not a fan of that show, I had no expectation (good or bad) of how he would be on this show. Ben McKenzie completely won me over in the pilot. He didn't say much in that episode, but he didn't have to - McKenzie's portrayal of Sherman was endearing. He was likable, innocent, vulnerable - and smart! As the years have gone by, Sherman has grown dark, jaded, and arrogant. He still thinks he does the right thing, and that's probably what scares me. McKenzie has played this transition flawlessly. You can see the daily internal struggle between good, bad, and everything in-between on McKenzie's face - he's never had to say much to get you to see how he's feeling. McKenzie is wearing Sherman's jaded outlook like a well worn suit, so much so that you begin to believe it may affect McKenzie himself. I truly don't know how these actors separate their craft from their lives.

Michael Cudlitz/John Cooper: Before SouthLAnd aired, I remember reading an article that stated they were going to have a gay cop as one of the leads. As a strong straight ally to the LGBT community, I immediately wondered how they would handle such a role without trivializing or stereotyping the character. When I later read that Michael Cudlitz had been cast in the role, I was simultaneously shocked and happy. As a 90210 fan, I still remember Cudlitz as the guy who took Brenda to the prom (sorry Michael!). I later watched and loved him in Band of Brothers, quite possibly one of my favorite shows of all time. While I had only seen him in a few other roles, I just knew in my gut that this guy wasn't going to make light (or make little) of his role as a gay man on the show... he was perfect for the job. And I was right!

Michael Cudlitz's John Cooper is introduced on day one as a smart talking, tough veteran not unlike many of the cops I knew back home in New Mexico. He isn't politically correct, he talks crap to his peers and his boot, and he's basically an all around guy's guy - at the surface. As the end of the very first episode showed, John Cooper is not without his skeletons; the tricky part was learning how many there were and how deep they were hidden in that closet. To say that Cooper is my favorite character on the show isn't fair. Cooper is one of my favorite characters of any medium of all time. He's complex, and I can't imagine anyone playing him other than Cudlitz. 

Cudlitz has the amazing ability (as does most of the cast) to say more with a look than with the words he may say (see the picture above). People who aren't even fans of the show have recognized that. But what those people don't get to see is the tremendous brilliance with which he portrays the many faces of John Cooper, both the man and the officer. You, the viewer, don't get to know John Cooper all at once. We get hints of his personal life, his addictions, and his pain as the show goes on, but Cooper has a pretty thick shell. With any other actor, the writers would be forced to give us dialogue to let us know how Coop is feeling, but with Cudlitz, it isn't necessary. 

Michael Cudlitz's masterful portrayal of John Cooper is awe-inspiring in every single episode. When Cooper feels pain, I feel that pain. When Cooper feels lost, I feel that loss. When Cooper has hope, I hope so much for that hope to be realized. Cudlitz has turned what could have been an arrogant, self-absorbed cop into one of the most endearing, beautiful characters to have ever graced my television screen. His back pain looks so real, my dad actually asked me if he had really hurt his back (my dad has had a double spinal fusion). When he recently told his ex-wife he wanted to start a family, I believed him. And when whether he's arguing with his boyfriend, being told off by his dad, or breaking down with his former FTO, I can feel the heartbreak he's feeling. And I have never witnessed more horror than Cudlitz portrayed in playing Cooper in the most recent SouthLAnd episode, "Chaos." I couldn't sleep last night after watching it, and I expect it was emotionally draining on Cudlitz to play that role too. How the man has never won an Emmy is beyond me...


In addition to this core cast, there are many tremendous supporting players who have come and gone through the years that were (and/or are) equally superb. I was so, so happy to see C. Thomas Howell added to the cast as a season regular in Season 5. Say what you will about Dewey, but he's always brought a levity to the show that can often be needed at times. Played by anyone else, Dewey would be any other jerk cop - possibly respected by some, but hated by most. Howell, however, brings humility and vulnerability to this character that balances him out beautifully. His turn on his partner, Chickie, before he went to rehab was played perfectly. I have been happy to see him more frequently this season, as we have gotten to learn more about him and what makes him tick. He hides a lot of compassion under that cocky and sometimes obnoxious exterior. Watching him worry about his friend in last night's episode wasn't surprising - and is a true testament to how well balanced Howell has played this character.

Of those who have come and gone, I also have a few favorites. Kevin Alejandro's portrayal of Gang Detective Nate was understated and "cool." He was so easy to like! Up until last night, his death was the most shocking and traumatic death I had ever seen on television. I cried not only for the loss of the character, but for the loss of the actor on the show - I knew they could not replace him. Lucy Lui's Officer Tang was a welcome surprise come Season 4. She was the perfect partner for Cooper after his return following back surgery, and gave us a new perspective on both the job and of John Cooper. 

This season's addition of Henry Lucero as partner for my beloved John Cooper was such a welcome surprise. No more boots for John! Lucero, played by the amazing Anthony Ruivivar, was instantly likable, confident, and the perfect balance to the sometimes-too-serious Cooper. I often tweeted my praise to him via Twitter; I was so pleased with his performance in the role. It wasn't until last night, however, that I truly understood how dedicated Ruivivar was to his craft. His character was beaten, burnt, and horribly tortured last night, and Ruivivar's performance had the audience feel each new wound with him. His death is now officially the most shocking of the series, and one I won't forget anytime soon. I am truly sad to see him go, but have been telling friends ever since - Ruivivar will be one to watch in the future. 

I could go on and on about my love for this show and it's brilliant cast and crew, but I'll stop. This love letter is already too long, and most of you have stopped reading. If you haven't watched SouthLAnd, please tune in to the finale next week. It's on the bubble, and we could use your views! Plus, I think you'll instantly be as hooked as the rest of its millions of fans. 

If you are a fan, please tell TNT to keep it on the air! Email them at and tell them to renew. Or sign the "Save SouthLAnd" petition. There is also a SouthLAnd Season 6 twitter page you can follow for more ideas to promote the show. I thank you for your help!

Until next time... Light 'em up in support of SouthLAnd!

--- Becks

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