As I wait anxiously for the next great TV series to arrive -- where are you? -- I thought we should talk a little about two very different shows and the axis of Concept and Execution. Mad Men gets "A"s in both but most TV shows have to struggle through by leaning on one or the other. Having a good and/or original concept can win you a lot of leeway if your execution is problematic (see: Smash) but what of the inverse? Enter... Southland now in its 4th season. On the surface and at its core Southland is just another police procedural. You've seen it before and you will see it again.
So why the hell is Southland so damn good?
"How to Be Awesome"
The answer is all in the Execution. more... I don't even like procedurals and Southland is one of the first shows I queue up on my DVR when I have a free hour. Two episodes ago Officer Sammy Bryant (Shawn Hatosy) was teased by his fellow cops for becoming a hero in the tabloids by way of the intersection of his good cop instincts and his moonlighting gig as a celebrity bodyguard (he's saving up money for ongoing custody battles with his ex-wife). I giggled when he walked in front of the precinct's wipe board where they'd written "How to Be Awesome" by his newspaper photos which he tore down and tossed at them playfully. Come on guys, he's just doing his job, y'know?
The same is true for EVERYONE on Southland. On paper or wipe board there is nothing remotely special about Another Police Procedural. But its writing, direction, editing, acting and savvy creative decisions (no underscore to tell you how you should be feeling as an audience) continually coalesce beautifully, making Southland feel truly special. I don't know if you can be "Awesome" if you're just one spoke in television's eternal wheel of cop shows, but you can definitely be Great At What You Do which Southland is.
MVP honors change from episode to episode. The show has been very smart about shifting partnerships and career roles and has thus developed a pretty solid bench of valuable full-time players and one season only livewires. Even characters who I didn't like at first like the closeted gay cop Officer Cooper (Michael Cudlitz) have grown richer with the years. The true star, if there can be one from such an ensemble, is Regina King as Detective Lydia Adams. Where are her damn Emmy nominations?!? If you try to describe Detective Adams she might sound as generic as Another Police Procedural but there's something in the subtlety of the writing and in Regina's fine work that makes Lydia feel ever watchable, familiar yet unknowable and not the least bit insufferable which is quite a feat since Detective Lydia Adams has virtually no sense of humor, is easy to predict (in practice if not in nuance), and is also quite unhappy. I've long maintained that depression is one of the toughest emotional states for actors to dramatize in interesting ways but King's performance is ever watchable. Lydia was depressed long before Season 4's Post Partum Depression (non-diagnosed, never vocalized) but she's kept her characterization varied enough to remain interesting.
The lack of awards notice must have something to do with the show's modesty. In a recent episode directed by King herself, they riffed on Silence of the Lambs with a previously unrevealed long term correspondence with a serial killer in prison. Lydia visited him on the day of his execution to try to find one last set of bodies that had never been recovered but he demanded her own emotional reveal. King didn't get a big monologue or demand one but in her Clarice Starling-style closeup through prison bars of confessional grief as she whispered her son's name to a killer.
Though Southland is not a serial in the same way that TV's greatest shows usually are (you can skip episodes at will) the sharp characterizations are the lifeline and throughline of the show. B+
Oz: The Great and Powerful reminded us quite recently of the perils of riffing on classic art - you'll always be compared and unfavorably so. But, here's the draw for showbiz types anyway: when you lean hard into an audiences Pre-Packaged Love For Your New Thing you can reap big monetary awards... at least until you're found out as a poor subsitute for the original. Still, in concept, a prequel that isn't really a prequel about the Bates family from Psycho isn't a bad concept at all for serialized drama. Now, I don't personally need my "backstory" filled in. I prefer vague suggestions of it, like the original Psycho offers, which allow my mind to wander and make the art feel richer through my participation. But since so many people DO want and need backstory on the menu a show about Mrs. Norman Bates is some kind of raw steak.
If you think about it Norma Bates might just be THE most famous female movie character that has never been defined by an actress. So you can see the draw for Vera Farmiga, one of the big screen's most underutilized major talents, in a weekly drama that aims to flesh her out. But even Farmiga can't do much with the lame material and journeyman-like execution surrounding her. Bates Motel proves again that concept isn't everything... that's just the springboard. You have to know what to do with it.
With only the pilot episode to go on it's difficult to see what the problem is exactly but it strikes me as a lack of nerve or maybe single-artist conviction. The show is all over the place in the pilot, as if it's trying to appeal to about five different market segments which means that nothing sticks. I'm not talking about the surely purposeful lack of a defined time period though even that is confusing in that it's not purposeful enough to excuse the distraction of Norma's Time Travelling Wardrobe and the iPod.
The one murder that takes place is certainly stabby disturbing though not in the right ways (making the victim so emphatically "deserve it" is a major lack of nerve for a show that's using the still nervy 53 year-old Hitchock Masterpiece as springboard!) but where the show utterly fails is in the aftermath (clean up and disposal) which is not at all disturbing. (Has this team never seen Psycho? That shit is disturbing in even the most innocuous scenes let alone murder cleanups). The only thing "right" that happens here is they find a way to somewhat cleverly incorporate the dread shower without actually making it a shower murder scene which would have been a) way too obvious and b) super duper lame.
Norma & Norman have two mother son conversations in the vicinity of the dead body but the filmmaking utterly fails to make the dead body a presence in these scenes which would surely make Hitchcock furious from the missed opportunity. Minor shifts in framing could have fixed this and definitely major shifts in editing. Why on earth are you doing utterly mundane shot/reverse shot closeups of this conversation, shot exactly how you'd see any sequence in any show on any network, when you can shoot both actors at once and include the dead body in the frame? Yes, yes, we know it's in the room but it would make these otherwise banal discussions so much creepier or even funnier.
In the absolute worst moment in the show, Norma & Norman take a boat out late at night to depose of the body which lays between them though we stupidly never see this. They have a heart to heart that's so banal it depressed me for both actors but especially for Vera Farmiga. Her lines go something like this...
Because Norman people suck. Everyone I've ever known has sucked. Except you.
...You're too good for me Norman. What good am I doing you?
It's not exactly poetry, this I suck, everyone sucks business. "Sucks"... really? This is the best dialogue you can come up with for NORMA F'IN BATES. Norman goes on to butter her up like only a spectacularly committed mama's boy could "I don't ever want to live in a world without you" business (in the pilot Freddie Highmore works hard, not always consistently, but you can see Norman Bates in him) and proceeds to steal lines from Jane Eyre which his mother calls him out on playfully. While you're ripping Great Gothic Art off Bates Motel, why don't you at least include Misery and borrow some of Annie Wilkes affected weirdly funny and cooped up linguistic quirks for Norma Bates. She sounds so NORMAL... and thus totally dull. How could such a normal mom have made Norman so crazy?
After they exchange "I love you"s (not in a creepy incestuous way despite being, um, Norma & Norman Bates) there's a long pause which I think is supposed to be a comic beat like 'oh yeah, they're going to dump a body'. The stupidly mundane dialogue might have been sickly hilarious if they'd been dumping the body WHILE SAYING IT but instead there's this long pause while Norma remembers the purpose of their boat ride. She glances at the water and drops a finger or two in.
I guess this is deep enough."
Oh Norma, Norma, Norma. It's not deep enough at all. You've barely caused a ripple. D