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Friday
Mar222013

Two TV Takes: "Southland" & "Bates Motel"

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+

Vera Farmiga takes over management of the world's most famous mother/son motel.

"I Suck"
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.

"Oh god, Mother. Blood"

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...

I suck...

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

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Reader Comments (21)

SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

Was I the only one really really really disturbed by the way that rape scene was handled? I hate the idea that this show thought it was ok to use rape so carelessly and easily. Making rape a plot contrivance absolutely minimizes the issue. Like oh, we have to have an excuse for Norma to kill someone in the first episode: well might as well have someone rape her. And the way it was shot was just gross. Sorry, but I do not want to watch a rape scene that is shot like a normal sex scene. I don't want to see tantalizing shots of the woman's feet pushed apart or her hands gripping things or anything at all that could be misconstrued as oh just like normal sex, except she doesn't like it. Nope nope nope, not ok. Love Vera Farmiga, so I'll probably keep watching, but I will be watching this the way I watch The Newsroom: suspiciously, begrudgingly, and completely hostile.

March 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTB

Wow. You make me really want to watch 'Southland'! I also rarely have time for procedurals... but I will recommend once again 'The Good Wife'. Rises above its procedural nature in every way possible every week. I would say it's one of the two best network dramas right now (along with 'Parenthood'). The acting is incredible, and you can add Julianna Margulies to your actressexual list right now, if you haven't already. She does sublime work in every episode.

I will also recommend 'Shameless'. This show is totally over-the-top and ridiculous... but it never forgets that these characters' story is a tragedy, and it never loses sight of their deeply flawed humanity. My god, do I ever love this show. These are characters that I love and cherish as if they were my own family. And go ahead and add Emmy Rossum to your list too. This is one of the absolute best performances on television.

March 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNicolas Mancuso

Couldn't find a place to post this, but I don't think u've completed the prizes for the acting categories at the FB awards!

March 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLuke

Nicolas -- i love Shameless too (what i've seen it of it) though I can't say i watch it faithfully. same with Southland.

March 22, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

@ TB -- I was actually coming to comment on that part of the pilot. The rape scene was so disturbing to watch and not for the obvious reasons. I think it irked me more than even the rape scenes in either of the "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" films. During it I kept thinking to myself "this is on the A&E channel?". Anything after that scene I was just checked out of and not just because of the lame dialogue. It also doesn't help that the second I realized they had modernized the time frame I was kind of pissed off. I was really looking forward to an eerie 1950's era PSYCHOlogical thriller (see what I did?). Le sigh....hoping for this show to get better but I'm not feeling much hope.

March 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterZacary Landolt

Those of us who truly enjoy Southland know it's in its fifth season.

March 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNick

Thank you for writing about Southland! I'm not a big fan of police procedural, but after reading praise for it for years I gave it a try. And I ended up binge-watching four seasons and then impatiently waiting for the fifth one to start. It is great.

March 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterIvonne

@Nicolas -- Love The Good Wife! I'd go so far as to say its an actressexual trifecta: Julianna Margulies, Archie Panjabi, and Christine Baranski. All killing it every episode. But much as I love it, best show on the networks right now is still my dearly beloved Parks and Rec. And word on Emmy Rossum, even if I'm not totally in love with Shameless.

@Nat -- Any words for Top Of The Lake?

March 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTB

You want truly great television? The current season - the fourth season - of Justified is some of the best everything I've seen in a long time. With it, this show has joined Breaking Bad, Deadwood, Arrested Development, Game of Thrones, and Archer as one of my favorite programs of this century. Which, I'll be honest, is likely the same as my "all-time" list.

March 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDevin D

UGH, Bates Motel. I still don't understand why in the world they gave it a contemporary setting - if you're going to do a Psycho prequel, COMMIT to it, dammit! It pisses me off even more because Vera Farmiga was amazing and Freddie Highmore was very, very good. And yeah, the rape scene was disturbing, but there was something... off... about it. It didn't fit, but it didn't signal a major shift in the show, either. It was just weird, and not in a good way.

What you said about Southland is almost exactly what I would say about The Good Wife, which is without question the best show on network TV right now, with Juliana Marguiles giving the best female performance (in a straight-up drama). It totally rises above it's lawyer procedural origins - if it ever really was one in the first place. If any show is giving it a run for its money, it's Scandal. AV Club ran a piece a while back on how damn quickly the show is moving, and I gotta say, that speed makes it so satisfying and surprising to watch at the same time. It's also really cynical for a major prime time network drama - the last big plotline involved an assassination attempt on the President to cover up the fact that he won the election because his inner circle (including his wife, chief of staff, and a Supreme Court Judge) rigged it for him. And Kerry Washington? There are no words. She kills it EVERY TIME. The phone call with Fitz last night? I can't.

The acting on Shamless is so amazing (Emmy Rossum gets top honors, but all the kids are pretty damn good, and Joan Cusack is great, too), but it's been really uneven this season. I'm halfway through the second season of Breaking Bad on Netflix right now, and all I can say is HOLY SHIT. That show is out of this world great.

March 22, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

How awesome are you for writing about Southland! Truly the most under appreciated show on the air. If you catch me on a random day, I'd dare say it was the best. You have to be beyond grateful to TNT for keeping it on the air, but I really wish it was on F/X to get some real buzz going.

March 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVal

Friends and I have been loving The History Channel's VIKINGS. It stars Les Mis actor George Blagden. You should also check out THE AMERICANS on FX.

March 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

"Southland' is amazing. Should have been an Emmy frontrunner every season it's aired, and even when it was mishandled on NBC. TNT has done right by it ever since, so for that, I'm grateful. Regina King being snubbed for as long as she has is shameful. It's also career-best work from Michael Cudlitz, Shawn Hatosy (like, seriously), and even Mr. O.C. himself, Benjamin McKenzie.

"Bates Motel" is a weird one. Love Vera Farmiga, but I doubt I'm going to continue watching such a misguided attempt to capitalize on the "Psycho" legacy. And making it present-day? What sense does that make? I don't need to see Norman Bates with an I-Pod. Just bizarre. Freddie Highmore hasn't nearly tapped into that Tony Perkins pervert level yet, though he does have the Norman look down. If Norma was more Annie Wilkes cray cray, I know I would have enjoyed this more.

March 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSamson

Southland - Love it to pieces and you perfectly articulate it's great points.

Bates- Totally agree it's a bore and that it's rape scene is abhorrent, borderline offensive stuff.

March 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrianZ

Echoing the love for the criminally underwatched/underrated "Southland" and extreme gratitude for giving it a shout-out! I don't like procedurals either, but this is no ordinary procedural. It's one of the best shows on TV today.

Nathaniel, I can't remember but have you seen "End of Watch"? I haven't but have been told it's like a movie version of Southland.

March 22, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterprincesskaraoke

Dunno, I liked Bates Motel well enough. The rape scene was repellent and awful, but, you know, it was supposed to be. The failure there wasn't conceptual, it was in the execution of the rest of the episode, which played it off like no big deal. I mean, when you have Norma Bates sit with her teenage son, with a corpse on the floor next to them, being all la de dah, "Well I'm sorry I was RAPED, Norman," there is something seriously off. Still, I thought Highmore and Farmiga were pretty good, I like the creepy Twin Peaks vibe they hinted at toward the end of the episode, and while I think this could still easily end up a train wreck, I'm interested to see if they make anything of it.

Southland is awesome.

March 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

I totally agree with you on "Southland"- I did not see the "Bates Motel" but haven't they learned that it's always a bad idea to do prequel to classic horror movies. I really have not interest in knowing what really went on between Norman and his terrible mother- Hitchcock's brilliant classic implied all sort of horrible things there is no need to spell them out.

March 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

I will only continue watching Bates Motel simply to support the recurring employment of Vera Farmiga. How is it that she is not one of the most sought after actresses in Hollywood? She's smart, intuitive, warm, sexy, mysterious, and just a great, instinctive actress. I'm confident she can make something out of Norma Bates even though I'm queasy about the direction the show is taking her. And Freddie Highmore is such a great young actor as well. So weird to see him grow up after his terrific performance in Finding Neverland.

Speaking of tv shows has anyone been watching The Americans this season? Although it's sort of a poor-man's Homeland (set in the Cold War instead of the "War on Terror"), Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are doing some pretty incredible work on the show. Honestly I never really knew Russell had this much depth to her as an actress. Definitely worth checking out.

March 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAaron

Bates Motel
So, somehow Norman just happens to peak the interest of a fair number of very attractive girls. He hardly looks the type. Then out of nowhere Norman appears in the middle of the rape. Where was the party he was at, just next door??? Then Norman leaves the room (with the still living rapist) to get "Mother" bandages. Its not like she was bleeding to death. Then mother decides to immediately rip out the carpet from all the motel rooms because the dead guy dripped blood in one of the rooms. How logical. And, oh, where is a cop when you need one? Apparently at the Bates Motel "just checking up" and needing to take a pee. BTW when the rapist came the first time he was in a truck. Did he walk all the way to the motel for the rape? The cops never mention the (known) truck and thus its driver. Back to the action. Next thing you know Norman and mother are in a row boat. Gotten from where??? They just moved to town. I'm sure I could find more holes in this story..., but by that point I fell asleep. Yes, it may be slick. It almost seems like there is this ever present fog that incest between Norman and mother might be reveled. But that's all this show is. Implausible titillation. If it were a student film attempt at remaking Psycho - then bravo for that student. But I can't slide past the improbable story line regardless of how "slick" it is made.

March 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTom

I'm a big fan of The Bates Motel, especially the recent episodes. Came across this video of Norman Bates thrown into "How I met your mother." It's called "How I am your mother." Very funny, should definitely check it out!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZBYvxL44KUY

April 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBill Pelcher

I am an absolute fan of Southland! I've had to chase it around channels, wait out cancellations, and hold my breath for new seasons, but have stuck with it, and have never been disappointed. I love each and every character presented. Not since Hill Street Blues has a police program seemed as real and personal. The finale this season was heartbreaking. Please tell me that this was not a "real" finale and there will be a new season!

April 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPat Batchelder

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