Monday, February 25, 2013

Southland - "Graduation Day"

Season 3, Episode 10
Original Airdate: March 8, 2011
Writers: John Wells (teleplay), Heather Zuhlke (story)
Director: Christopher Chulack
Executive Producers: Christopher Chulack, John Wells
Cast: Ben McKenzie, Regina King, Shawn Hatosy, Michael Cudlitz

For a show whose survival has been nothing short of miraculous and whose storytelling is consistently brilliant, “Southland” never seems to get the respect it deserves. Everyone I’ve recommended the show to doesn’t seem to know it exists or thinks its been long-cancelled, and yet when they actually watch an episode they end up addicted. And while I came close to choosing the nearly-flawless pilot for this article, “Graduation Day” represents the show at its creative peak, and part of what makes this episode special is that it should not logically exist.

The premise of “Southland” is as simple as they come – it follows the day-to-day lives of a handful of Los Angeles police officers and detectives. No huge meta twist, no quirky detective protagonist…just real people trying to stay above water while doing one of the most emotionally taxing, physically dangerous jobs on the planet. It premiered on NBC as a midseason replacement to decent ratings and was renewed for a second season shortly thereafter.

Then the great NBC Jay Leno experiment came into play.

For those unfamiliar, for a season NBC wiped all original programming from their 10 o’clock hour and replaced it with a Jay Leno talk show that premiered to huge ratings but then quickly floundered. Because of “Southland’s” dark content, NBC’s executives allegedly became very uncomfortable with airing it at 9 p.m. and cancelled it before it even had a chance to premier, with six episodes already filmed.

TNT, a network known more for “The Closer” than for gritty, realistic drama, swooped in and agreed to air the six unaired season two episodes. Then, miracle of miracles, the network picked it up for a third season of ten episodes with a much-reduced budget…and the results are some of the best television I have ever seen. It’s not often that a show has a “perfect” season, and even now I can count them on a single hand…but, to me, the season is just about as perfect as they come. The show seemed to flourish under the budget cuts, taking more chances and finding inventive (and often heartbreaking) ways to trim its cast. The storytelling was more honest and streamlined – and now the show is in the middle of its fifth season. All with a fraction of the critical acclaim lavished on shows like “Girls” or “Boardwalk Empire.”

But back to “Graduation Day” which, despite being the third season finale, is only the 23rd episode of the series. The brilliant John Wells (who helped to craft such masterworks as “The West Wing” and “E.R.”) wrote the script based off a story by Heather Zuhlke, and together they paid off storylines that had legitimately been building since the first episode of the series. I’m guessing that they went into the episode assuming that it would be a series finale, which is why there is an added sense of urgency to almost every scene.

The theme of the hour, underlined by its title, is one of transitions for every cast member. Ben (Ben McKenzie) is graduating from boot cop. Cooper (Michael Cudlitz) finally must face his painkiller addiction head on. Sammy (Shawn Hatosy) finally catches the scum who murdered his partner and welcomes his son into the world. Chickie (Arija Bareikis) is moving on from her partnership with Dewey (C. Thomas Howell), who doesn’t know how to deal with it. And Lydia (Regina King) explodes the finally stable relationship she has with her partner.

As with any episode of “Southland,” it’s all about the moment-to-moment encounters these officers have and how those small beats build up to a cohesive whole. A career. A life. In a scene that could easily have come across as throwaway, Ben and Cooper are called to a house where a mother is livid that her husband allowed a gang symbol to be tattooed on their six-year-old son. The scene plays almost comically at first, but then we see the young boy point his finger at Cooper repeatedly and pretend to be shooting him. And suddenly, our hearts break. We understand the struggle they go through and recognize how much these cops must feel like they are punching water on a day-to-day basis.

Another beautifully realized moment: Sammy learns that there is a warrant out against the man he knows killed his partner, though not for the murder. The thug is involved in a shootout and Sammy races to the thug just in time to see him bleeding to death. Instead of comforting him or walking away, Sammy leans into the guy’s face and repeats his partner’s name, Nate Moretta, over and over until the man is dead. It’s immensely powerful and a fantastic way to climax the main arc of the season, but one can’t help but be a little horrified by it. In other words, it’s great drama.

As if that wasn’t enough, the centerpiece of the finale is a fantastic foot chase between Ben and a rapist/kidnapper, with the drug-addled Cooper far behind and barely able to walk, let alone lend support his partner. In fact, there’s a moment where Cooper is climbing over a fence and we see his entire body shift and crack before he falls that is one of the most cringe-inducing I’ve ever seen. The action moves to a series of rooftops that Jimmy Stewart should really avoid. Director Christopher Chulack (who directed many of “Southland’s” best hours) gives the sequence a great build and tension, never allowing the scope of the set-piece outmeasure the grittiness of its circumstances. There’s a down-and-dirty hand-to-hand fight between Ben and the rapist that is punctuated with a climax that left my jaw on the floor thanks to a really, Really, REALLY amazing stunt (the show’s only Emmy love comes from its stuntwork, which is always aces).

In all of its most important episodes, the writers find new shades and uses for the simple phrase “I’m a cop.” In the pilot Ben says it, in the second-season finale Chickie says it while arresting a cop-impersonator. Here the statement, so important and iconic to the series, it spoken by Cooper while he is volunteering for detox before he can have back surgery. He’s broken mentally and physically, but still a person. Still human. And that’s what “Southland” so perfectly portrays. Its characters are flawed, sometimes horrible, but ultimately good…and we can’t help but love them for it. This is a fantastic show, one whose reputation will certainly grow over time. Take my word for it; “Southland” is a modern classic…most people just don’t know it yet.

“Graduation Day” is available on iTunes and DVD.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Arrested Development - "Meat the Veals"

Season 2, Episode 16
Original Airdate: April 3, 2005
Writers: Richard Rosenstock, Barbie Adler
Director: Joe Russo
Executive Producers: Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Mitchell Hurwitz, David Nevins
Cast: Jason Bateman, Portia de Rossi, Will Arnett, Tony Hale

Telling a single funny joke is infinitely more difficult than telling a single unfunny one, and filling 22 minutes with funny jokes is nearly impossible, no matter what a laughing studio audience would have you believe. “Meat the Veals” is as close to a perfect comedic episode of television I’ve ever seen. Every single joke is funny, and every time I watch the episode I am as entertained as I was the first time. And yes, I write this fully acknowledging that the title is horrible. For me, it’s the pinnacle of “Arrested Development,” a show with many creative peaks.

Plus, there’s Mrs. Featherbottom.

Plus, we’re introduced to Franklin the puppet.

Though now it seems like everyone knows and loves the show (and likes to boast that they watched it when it was originally on air. As if.), the series was an underground movement from the start…the type of program that four hipsters in Brooklyn watched but were afraid to tell others about because it would mean admitting they had a television. Even I, the guy who watched all three episodes of “The Return of Jezebel James,” didn’t start watching until the beginning of the second season. And, truthfully, it’s easy to see why its many eccentricities turned off new viewers. Instead of self-contained, simple A-and-B stories, any given episode had about ten continuing storylines going on. Instead of giving viewers easy jumping-on points for prospective viewers, it filled its half-hours with dozens of in-jokes new viewers would not understand. This craziness is what makes the show great, of course – and are a huge reason why it has flourished on DVD and Netflix (where viewers can watch from episode one and not miss a beat). But for the show’s original audience, the inside-baseball gags were just another reason we loved it. It was like we were part of an elite club that most of the world was not privy to.

Of course being part of a small, elite club watching a broadcast sitcom doesn’t guarantee it’ll have a long and successful run, but that’s beside the point.

The main story of “Meat the Veals” (let me reiterate how much better the episode is than its name suggests) involves George Michael (Michael Cera), to his father Michael’s (Jason Bateman) chagrin, wanting to get pre-engaged to his girlfriend Anne (Mae Whitman). Meanwhile, Oscar (Jeffrey Tambor) wants to throw an anniversary party for his missing twin brother (Tambor again) and Lucille (Jessica Walter). Meanwhile, Tobias (David Cross) has been thrown out of the house by Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) and, in order to see his daughter Maeby (Alia Shawkat), dons the persona of a British housekeeper named Mrs. Featherbottom. Meanwhile, Maeby tries to keep her dual life as a studio exec hidden from her family. Meanwhile, GOB (Will Arnett) wants to re-introduce the family to Franklin, a racist black puppet that mocks George Michael’s “cracker ass,” among other non-bleeped things. Like I said, it’s a little complex for a half-hour sitcom. But then again, half the fun is watching the multiple storylines crash into one another in ways much cooler than “Crash.”

Like I wrote, every single joke lands. Also, this happens, which is my favorite bit of physical television comedy in the past decade. I can’t watch the episode without rewinding Mrs. Featherbottom’s fall multiple times. It’s difficult to pick a favorite bit of dialogue…maybe this one?

Lindsay (re: Mrs. Featherbottom): “You do realize that’s Tobias, right?”Lucille: “If he’s going to get into my closet, he’s going to work for it.”
Or this one?
Mrs. Featherbottom: “Who’s up for a banger in the mouth?”
I’d mention more, but then I’d just start listing, which is only fun if it involves Roger Ebert quotes.

What struck me during this viewing is how varied the actors’ different styles of comedy are. In series like “Fraiser,” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” every actor seems to be hitting the same comedic notes in any given episode. Often when a different comedic style is introduced on sitcoms, a’la Urkel on “Family Matters” or Fonzie in “Happy Days,” they tend to take over the show and shift the comedy to their strengths. I don’t write that as a criticism of those shows, just an observation in order to underline how special it is that “Arrested Development” can marry all those brands of humor into one cohesive whole. Cera’s quiet, awkward humor couldn’t be further removed from Cross’ broad slapstick, and yet when they are in the same room together, it feels right.

This leads me to the question of whether this is the best comedic ensemble in television history. Surely the casts of shows like “I Love Lucy,” “Seinfeld” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” were, in their own ways, perfect…but this cast is also perfect. And bigger. And while those sitcoms ostensibly had the title star at their center, here there is no true lead. Yes, Michael is our way into the show, but in many ways he’s just as demented as the rest of his family (it’s just not as obvious) – and just because you play the straight man in a comedy sketch does not mean you are central to it. So yeah, as to the question posed above, I’ll call this troupe the once-in-a-lifetime, lightning-in-a-bottle, other-cliché-chesnut, best cast in the history of television.

And I’m so happy that “Arrested Development” has crossed over garnered the popularity it always deserved. I remember being in college when I discovered it, and putting on DVDs of the first season for my friends while we were eating Papa Johns and whipped ice cream. In a way, helping others discover the program and the greatness contained therein was part of the fun – like handing a great novel to someone and whispering “you’ll thank me later.”

“Meat the Veals” is available on DVD, Netflix, Amazon Prime, iTunes and Hulu. And now, seven years after the show was cancelled midseason by Fox, it has been revived by Netflix. The fourth season will be available in May.