Orange is the New Black: Seasons 1-3

Orange_Is_the_New_Black_Title_CardI’m really, really late to the party on Orange is the New Black. I actually did watch the first season a few months ago but didn’t review it at the time because I was intending to subscribe to Netflix almost immediately and watch the second season. But life got in the way so I didn’t actually manage to get round to signing up until very recently. At which point (aided by a nasty cold and a couple of days off work) I powered through seasons 2 and 3 in the space of about a week.

Orange is the New Black is perfectly suited to this kind of box set binging. The series as a whole has an overall story playing out, with each season having a couple of undulating plots and themes and then each episode having its own story and focus. These all combine, sometimes uniting to synchronised crescendos and sometimes all dropping away to see the development that happens in the quietest moments. You might struggle to remember specifics of what has happened in the last few episodes, but you’ve actually learnt huge amounts about characters and seen shifts in relationships and power dynamics throughout everyone involved. The way each episode also focusses flashbacks on a particularly character and reveals more (but never all) of their journey to today is a brilliant structure.

The really impressive thing is the sheer number of characters involved in this. There are easily two dozen prisoners who come in and out of the central stories, some of the big players in season 3 were there only in the background in season 1, just waiting their turn. Then you’ve got another half dozen or so guards and a fair number of family members outside the prison. The ensemble is absolutely incredible. I assumed it was going to be all about the central Piper character, the ‘good’ girl who finds herself in prison for a ‘youthful mistake’ long in the past, but she’s really just the audience’s way into the complex community inside the prison. In many ways, she’s actually the least interesting character there and I often felt she was a weak point of the show, particularly when being used too heavily for the comedy.

That’s the real question mark for me over the show. Orange is the New Black initially presented itself as a comedy and garnering an Emmy nomination in the best comedy category). Latter seasons though downplayed the comedy though and I think it was to the series’ advantage. To be honest even the first season seemed more a drama with occasional moments of humour than a true comedy (pitting a series that included rape and suicide against Modern Family and Veep seemed pretty bizarre). The fact that its second season won a nomination in the drama category shows just how good it is, although the re-categorisation was in fact due to the Emmys changing their rules to dictate that comedies had to be half hour long, and the show lost its appeal to return to the comedy category (ref).

I’d also make my usual “I’m not a prude, but” complaint that the nudity is particularly gratuitous and unnecessary at times. It is completely limited to the female characters (even in the flashback sequences where there are plenty of opportunities for more balanced nudity), There are plenty of times that the nudity (and the sex, violence and language) are used to extremely powerful effect, reinforcing the vulnerability and lack of privacy the prisoners have, but by also using it just for needless reason undermined that power. Particularly when that was heavily loaded in the first episode, it just comes across as crass and an attempt to draw in a certain type of audience which will really not match the true audience for the show.

Orange is the New Black is one of those shows that comes along so rarely and sort of whacks you round the head, reminding you of just what great television is. It’s revelatory more than revolutionary, because nothing it does is really that original. Lost (amongst others) did the flashback on a character trick, plenty of series have been set in prisons, lots have blended very black comedy and drama , but Orange is the New Black is that rare beast that manages to bring all that together to be entertaining, interesting and really really really good. It’s worth the price of Netflix all by itself.

CSI: NY – Season 9

csinyCSI New York was a show that I’ve spent the last 4 years watching “just one more season” because it seemed certain to be cancelled at the end of the year. Neither the ratings nor critical praise lived up to its older sibling, and in the case of the praise, that really wouldn’t be a tough competition to beat. How it managed to get to nine seasons is one of the great questions for our time. Heaven only knows there was nowhere near enough character development, plot or creativity to fill 197 episodes. But it’s finally really been cancelled this time, and I can now finally stop watching.

Season 9 went by exactly the same way the others did, a roller-coaster of characters and plots swerving from unremarkable to annoying with just enough charm and humour scattered through to make it just about worth watching. The combination that frustrated me most was the sloppy police work and forensics in the field but a reliance on the tiniest scraps of evidence and scientific anomalies in the lab. Each case would come down the the perpetrator leaving microscopic traces of some sort of dirt that was only found in one place, or a hair that indicated a rare genetic condition. All found after 17 thousand police officers and CSI’s had clomped through the crime scene. OK the British forensics teams in their white jumpsuits and hair nets look pretty silly, but at least they give some degree of confidence they’re not contaminating everything left right and centre.

The characters suffer their usual mixture of blandness and sanctimony. Everyone getting nicely caught up in their own fiascos as girlfriends get abducted and goodness knows what else. After 9 years I should feel some sense of connection to the characters, but with the exception of the gloriously weird Sid the Coroner and Adam the Tech guy, I really couldn’t give a hoot about any of them. Flack can at least be relied on to provide good banter, but the rest of them never seemed to develop between 2 sentence clichés.

For all that, clearly the show did something right because I actually stuck it out for 9 years! Admittedly a lot of the was accompanying ironing, but I can’t deny that I seem to have passed 6 full days of my life with it on in the background. That really does tell you far more about me, than it does about the show though.

Orphan Black: Season 1

orphanblackI went in to this series with high expectations. It had a lot of buzz about it from the US where it has almost immediately become a cult classic. It’s a favourite of the critics, but made no impression at the big award.

It’s a Canadian production, distributed by BBC Worldwide, but despite running March-June on BBC America we had to wait until September for it to eventually appear on BBC 3. Despite its hype though I did my best to avoid finding out too much about what it was. I knew it was about clones, but I didn’t really know anything else and I think that actually made it even better. I’ll try to repeat the favour, so if this review is vague to the point of incomprehensibility, it’s for your own benefit.

One thing I can talk about is the style. I was a bit worried it would be the kind of show that would alienate people (myself included!) by being too cool. Too gritty and edgy, trying to appeal to the Youth market that I hear tell of by being all loud music, sex, nudity and swearing. It wasn’t. But neither was it flat or dull. It had a sort of effortless style to it, music that you don’t necessarily consciously register but which drives everything along. The style comes from the characters, so when it’s a bit over the top on the grungy graffiti front, it’s OK because that’s just Felix’s flat, or if the gothy punk bit is a bit much, that’s just because it’s what Sarah’s like. If it’s a bit weird and trippy at times, well again that’s just what that particular character is like and in each case there’s a very good reason why they’ve committed so wholeheartedly to that particular style.

The only thing that I’m going to say about the plot is that it’s about clones. That could still count as a bit of a spoiler, but without mentioning that there’s no way that I could talk about the most incredible thing in the show. Tatiana Maslany plays all the clones. With the aid of some wigs and costume changes she manages to make every clone a completely independent character. After hardly any time at all I couldn’t even see the same actress underneath them. Even when it ends up with one clone impersonating another, you never lose sight of the characters. It’s a phenomenal collection of performances that is worth watching the show for all by itself. She won both the major critics awards (Critics Choice and Television Critics Association) yet not even a nomination from the Emmys, which tells you everything you need to know about her performance and the idiocy of the Emmys.

Although Maslany’s performance is far and away what makes the show, the rest of it keeps up with her. The plot developments and turns kept me on my toes throughout, but they were never so complex that I started to get confused and/or lose interest. It blends all the elements of science fiction and drama together with plenty of characters and relationships to make you care, and enough humour to break the tension at the right points and acknowledge the ridiculousness of the situation.

This is a great series. I can’t really think of anything like it on TV at the moment. I guess the closest would be the Channel 4 series Utopia from earlier this year, but to be honest, Orphan Black puts it in the shade in every regard except pure directorial style. I cannot wait to see where season 2 goes.

Season 1 is available on dvd and blu ray from amazon et al

Smash: Season 2

smashThere are bad shows out there. Shows with bad writing, bad acting, bad premises, bad direction and on occasion – all of the above. But those shows don’t really have much of an impact on my life. They give me the opportunity to write a vitriolic review of the pilot and then I never have to see them again. At worst I’ll annually grouch about how they got picked up for another season while personal favourites didn’t. Good shows are similarly easy to write about, a nice bit of enthusiastic gushing, a recommendation to find a way to catch up and we can all move along happy. To a certain extent even the ones that are resoundingly mediocre are quite straightforward to watch and write about, you know what you’re getting and they’re a passable way to kill time while ironing.

The most frustrating shows however are the ones that do some things really well and other things catastrophically badly. They leave me ranting about how bad they are, while endlessly coming back for yet more punishment. They make you care and then disappoint you over and over again. You’ll have concluded by now that Smash falls into that category.

First the bad. Although they got rid of the most annoying characters from the first season (Ellis, Del, Julia’s family) not all the new characters were a substantial improvement. Jimmy and Kyle were way too unoriginal, the former the classic leather jacket wearing, mysterious bad boy with an amazing talent, the latter a gay Broadway wannabe with big dreams, big commitment and big hair. The two form an “unlikely” friendship and partnership (unlikely partnerships happen surprisingly frequently in TV land) and get to actually live their dreams. Mind you they were paragons of subtelty compared to the horrific guest turn from Sean Hayes as a character who somehow manages to be even more ridiculous than his previous role as Jack (Just Jack!) in Will and Grace!

Many of the other storylines for the series were pretty tired and unoriginal too, the director and the casting couch, the long standing partnership falling apart, an unplanned pregnancy, rekindling old flames and, most manipulative of all, a sudden death just to bring everyone back in to the game. The storylines weren’t just tired, they felt cheap. Purely based on driving plots not really having any coherence within the character stories. The biggest problem with many of those stories was that they broke one of the things I praised from last season – that the characters were competent at their jobs. People can screw up their personal lives, they can make isolated silly mistakes, but once it moves into professional incompetence, I begin to stop caring.

Maybe I was just a willing victim of the manipulation though, because I really loved the show and am going to miss it. When Smash was at its best it was about the characters, the relationships, the theatre and the music. The final episode started with a massive group sing-along, had some impassioned speeches about the power of the theatre, some beautiful moments between characters as they acknowledge what they mean to each other, and ended with a song all about ignoring the critics and going out on a big number. I laughed, I cried, I sang along and I went to buy the soundtrack.

Season 2 was better than season 1 I think. The addition of the second musical was a good choice, I wasn’t a big fan of the Marilyn Monroe musical (either in concept or in style) so the very different style of production was a nice change. It also took Karen and Ivy out of direct competition for the most part giving them both space to breath. The question of where the show could have gone in season 3 is interesting. With another year they could have continued to improve, but I’m not sure they hadn’t written themselves out of story (although the writing was on the wall in terms of cancellation, so maybe they didn’t care). Maybe it actually finished in the perfect place.

The fact that I care enough about Smash to say “I wish it was better” says a lot. It was a phenomenally talented cast with both familiar television faces and incredible theatre performers, able to deliver the drama, the comedy and wonderful song and dance numbers. Thanks to the generous budget they could shoot in actual New York, not LA-New York or Toronto-New York and
use some incredible locations and sets. There’s nothing else quite like it on television at the moment either in subject or style, maybe there’s a good reason for that, but I for one will miss it.

Nurse Jackie: Seasons 1-5

Nurse JackieMy brother has been nagging me for years to watch Nurse Jackie, but I have very firm rules about not starting a series mid-way through and I never quite got round to hunting out the first season either on television or on dvd. Finally though I spotted the first four seasons on LoveFilm instant and I made pretty swift work of powering through all the episodes and then finding season 5 to bring me bang up to date within just a couple of weeks. That in itself pretty much tells you how right my brother was.

I’ll keep the main review pretty spoiler free and generic to the series as a whole, then at the bottom I’ll go into each season in a little more detail, but it’s hard to do that without spoilers, so beware!

The show is (unsurprisingly) about a nurse called Jackie. She’s an excellent nurse who does what she has to do for the good of her patients, but she’s also a drug addict who lies and deceives everyone around her. mostly-functional drug addict. The show is notionally a comedy (and a 1/2 hour one at that), but it’s more a “snorting quietly under your breath at the humour that’s inherent in life” kind of comedy rather than a laughing and jokes kind of one. Really though it’s a pure character study of Jackie, of her interactions with the people around her – family, friends, colleagues and patients. It’s funny because people are generally pretty funny. But it’s also dramatic, tragic, farcical, sweet and sad, because people are all those things too.

The series really is like nothing else I can think of. On occasions I was frustrated at the half hour format, wanting to spend more time with the particular cases of the week, or wanting to see more of the fallout of events, but generally I think the show was far better for its brevity. It has an elegance to it, not a second is wasted explaining something that the audience can easily work out for themselves. Not only does it obey the rule to “show don’t tell” but it excels in the secondary rule of “imply don’t show”.

For a show built entirely around one character it’s a credit to the writers that I love the show even though I don’t actually particularly like the central character. She’s a stunningly complex and fascinating character, and one that I would very much want to be my nurse, but I don’t think I’d want her as a friend, and I’d be very nervous of getting on her bad side if I were a colleague. The writers make brave choices to not soften the character or have her make the ‘right’ decisions and Edie Falco is phenomenal at playing her.

In this kind of character study though, the supporting cast hold equal power, bringing out different sides of the character and highlighting the complexity in the way she interacts with each individual. Her friendship with O’Hara (Eve Best) is probably the most honest you see the character with others (although it’s not entirely honest still), and that acceptance of who Jackie is provides a lot of the humour and lightness. Her friendship with Akalitus (the always wonderful Anna Deavere Smith) is more complicated, but as the person with probably the longest history with Jackie, she too is one of the more accepting of who Jackie really is. With Akalitus and O’Hara sitting on either side of her, Jackie is both balanced and challenged constantly. And following in her footsteps is Zoe, as a reflection of who Jackie might once have been, allowing the audience to see which paths can be followed.

I’m less blown away by the male characters sadly. I never found Coop anything other than epically irritating, he remained like a small child with a desperate need to be liked by everyone but an endless ability to destroy relationships through ignorance and thoughtlessness. Kevin and Eddie are both likeable enough, but both struggle to have any character outside their relationships with Jackie, leaving them as appearing rather weak and uninteresting.

It’s an utterly addictive series to watch, I found myself watching half a dozen episodes in a row multiple times, both impressed and entertained and occasionally devastated. It’s also a show that keeps moving, with each season doing something slightly differently. So below are slightly spoilery bits on each of the seasons.

Season 1
1I knew very few of the details of the show going in and that works well. Knowing that Jackie is a drug taking nurse doesn’t really prepare you for the reality of her actions. Likewise the surprises of the relationships she has are delightful and difficult to see. It never pulls punches on the character, never excusing her choices or making her lies and actions easy or without consequences. There were several avoidable plot contrivances which left me frustrated (cutting off a ring and then breaking a finger as an excuse rather than just wrapping the finger in a bandage with the ring still on being a key example), but overall a surprising and excellent first season.

Season 2
2I did miss the character of Mo-Mo, I liked the way he was sort of in between Zoe and Jackie, Thor grew on me though once he started answering back a bit more. I also wasn’t a massive fan of Eddie going all stalkery and desperate, as I mentioned above he just came across as entirely defined by his relationship with Jackie and therefore rather bland and weak. It was however interesting to see Jackie losing control, entertaining when it came to Eddie befriending Kevin, but tougher when it was watching her struggle to understand her daughter’s problems.

Season 3
3There was a deeply frustrating Coop storyline where he once again acted like a child the whole season, upset about his parents’ divorce and desperately engineering a wedding for himself. Jackie meanwhile is rapidly losing control of her lies and her addiction which is hard to watch, but also satisfying. I didn’t really feel sorry for her, she had after all brought all this onto herself, but I also didn’t feel any real satisfaction seeing her gradually lose the trust of her friends and family.

Season 4
4Jackie goes to rehab. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, to see that she’d been playing a game all along and deceiving everyone, but as the season went on, it just became more and more real. It was a brave choice for the writers to make, to redefine the show from being about a drug addicted nurse to being about a recovering addict, but it really worked. Less brave was the fact that they followed the unwritten rule that sooner or later every American medical show seems to do a storyline about becoming more like a business, all suits and targets and efficiencies. At least Nurse Jackie brought in Bobby Cannavale to add weight to the story, and it had the unexpected delight of bringing the very best out of Akalitus and her relationships with Jackie and O’Hara. The three women supporting each other through the change of management, rehab and a pregnancy was possibly the high point of the entire series.

Season 5
5Jackie’s now clean, sober and divorced, but more alarmingly – she’s without O’Hara. While I love Jackie’s stronger relationships with Akalitus and Zoe, I really really missed O’Hara and the show really missed her humour. I felt particularly robbed of the opportunity to see O’Hara with baby! Watching Jackie and Kevin try to work out their new relationship was interesting (although sometimes heartbreaking) and I liked the new love interest of Frank and the new honesty Jackie brought to a relationship. Coop continues to be a frustrating character though and the other new doctors didn’t make a very favourable impression either. All my responses and reactions to the season pale into insignificance at the intensity of my emotions during the final few moments. I can’t think of anything else I’ve felt so devastated and overwhelmed by in response to a calm and understated action by a character. I’m both looking forward to, and dreading, season 6.

Scandal: Season 2

scandalI have a confession to make. I cheated when I watched this. I was trundling along quite happily watching week by week on Channel 4, frustrated that we were months behind the US, but plodding through. Then a friend pointed me at a reliable online source of episodes and I promptly lost an entire weekend, utterly incapable of doing anything but watching episodes back to back until I reached the end of the season.

That could be taken as an indication of just how good the show is, but it’s more complicated than that. The show is completely and manipulatively addictive; each episode racing along and ending on irresistible cliffhangers. There are so many mysteries and storylines, each constantly waxing and waning that you’re carried along without having time to stop and ponder the the fact that it’s actually a bit rubbish.

Most of the plots make no sense. I was utterly lost about who knew what about which conspiracy as everything twisted itself in knots. Then various characters and relationships just go round and round in dysfunctional and destructive circles of “we shouldn’t”, “but we want to”, “but we shouldn’t” until the only sensible conclusion is that everyone should retreat to separate corners of the globe and have nothing at all to do with each other.

But then the Shonda Rhimes magic kicks in. You don’t want the characters to be apart, because they’re so fascinating together. In the first season I was full of praise for Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope and my admiration has only increased. She plays Pope’s great strength and great vulnerability perfectly in synch with each other, a woman whose brain has all the answers but whose heart still makes poor choices. After the very short first season I commented that the supporting characters got minimal development but had potential. Boy does that potential fly this season. With the possible exception of Harrison, everyone gets a huge amount of backstory and character development, while still leaving massive amounts of mystery and interest. Ironically, of all the characters I think the weakest is actually the President, who comes across increasingly like a sulky, lovesick teenager.

I do maybe wish that the series would slow down a bit, allowing more time for the stories and characters to marinade before rushing on to the next challenge. I thought the first season was rushed because of the episode count, but it turns out that’s just the pace they want to move at. It does wobble precariously between busy and chaotic, the moment when John Barrowman appeared and was actually the most understated thing in the episode was a moment that should have caused some pause in the writers room.

But like Grey’s Anatomy, the faults don’t really matter because it’s a show that I HAVE TO WATCH. Every episode has a moment that has me immediately wanting to share with a friend and gossip about. It replaces the emotional manipulation of Grey’s Anatomy with intrigue and mystery, but loses absolutely none of the heart. Come on Channel 4, I need season 3 now. This instant!

NCIS: Los Angeles – Season 4

ncislaNCIS: LA this season has continued to strengthen its strengths and weaken its weaknesses.

The great strength of NCIS: LA is the characters and their relationships. The characters are consistent, they grow and mature, their relationships evolve, the dynamics of the group as a whole change and it actually feels like a realistic group of people.

Every single episode finds time to cash in on that strength. The banter between characters is laugh out loud funny. I frequently end up rewinding to watch again and try to catch the little looks and body language that make the scenes a living thing. The conversation between the characters feel like real people talking, with pop-culture references, sarcasm, recurrent jokes, flashes of anger, touches of fondness. Not only are they people who I’d want on my side if I needed saving from bad guys, they’re also the kind I wouldn’t mind having a drink with after everything is sorted out.

Its a good job the series has that going for it, because the rest of the show around them meanders between mediocre and miserable. Both the NCISes have the issue of trying to shoehorn the Navy into straightforward cases, NCIS:LA seems to focus on various complicated terrorist groups which means that while the stakes are higher (the whole future of the world!) the emotional engagement is actually less because there are rarely tangible victims. There was some sort of continuing plot going on through the year about weapons dealers, but I have utterly no clue and no interest in it.

I can’t even say whether the stories fit together coherently, because I never pay attention. It’s not that I forget about them after I’ve watched (as with Criminal Minds or CSI), it’s that I don’t even know when I’m watching. They’re just the filler between bantering sessions, a means to get our characters somewhere new, in some new undercover situation or in some new pickle just for them to banter their way out.

It’s enough. But just. When NCIS lost sight of the characters, it lost me as a viewer, the same risk applies to NCIS:LA. But for now, I’m happy enough to just spend time with these characters that I’ll forgive the boring plots. But is it really so hard for writers to deliver both?

PS – The embedded pilot for NCIS: Red was actually a lot of fun. I loved the concept of a team travelling the country and world together, acting as a fast response team. It had a lot of potential I thought, and the cast, particularly Kim Raver (Grey’s Anatomy) as the lead was charismatic and interesting. For some reason, it didn’t get picked up to series (which given the phenomenal ratings the other NCIS series get, seems very strange) which I think is a real shame. Maybe they’ll be able to appear as guest stars sometime.