Orange is the New Black: Season 4

Orange_Is_the_New_Black_Title_CardI reviewed the previous three seasons in a block, and so have only actually talked about the show in broad terms before, never getting into specifics of storylines or characters. That makes this season a little harder to review, separating out a block of episodes from the rest, not least by time. It’s almost exactly a year since I watched the previous two seasons almost on top of each other (I watched season 1 a little earlier but didn’t review it separately) and I struggled to get back up to speed. It’s easy enough to look up some of the key facts of the previous seasons, but really getting back into the characters is hard, particularly when there are so many of them and the focuses are constantly shifting.

I think season 4 does stand out from the rest. The writers seem to be moving away from the use of flashbacks with a different character each episode and I think that’s a shame. I like the little snapshot of someone’s previous life that you get, not answering all the questions, but giving them backstory, emotional foundations and a look at what they’ve lost and what their lives could have been. The flashbacks were much shorter or even absent altogether and the choices of characters weren’t so good and I think that really impacted the depth and flavour of the show. I also think there was a move away from really showing that these people are criminals. Yes there are some cases of mental illness, bad luck or just stupidity, but most of them are genuinely guilty and fairly imprisoned and losing track of that is a mistake I think.

I don’t know whether the corporate overlords and irritating Linda-from-Procurement were an attempt to bring some comedy to the show again, but it didn’t work. Caputo has always been a borderline believable character for me, so on the plus side the ridiculous corporate politics made him seem a little more human, but only in comparison to their cliché ridden stereotypes, which isn’t really much to be thankful for.

The real problem is that the stupid characters (and I’m afraid I frequently have to include Piper in that category) play completely at odds with the seriousness of the situations unravelling in the prison. I have a horrible feeling I’m being entirely naïve that people running prisons couldn’t be so stupid and irresponsible as to allow these situations to develop, but by making some of the characters deliberately extreme and unbelievable, it undermines the serious point if that’s what the writers were actually trying to do.

This is the problem Orange is the New Black has again, and again – the uncertainty about whether it wants to be funny or serious. The subject matter covered this season (and also in previous ones) is horrific. Dealing with brutal emotional and physical issues. The way people treat each other (prisoners, guards, family in every combination) is horrible. You cannot and should not make light of that. There can be funny moments, everyone makes jokes in difficult circumstances and laughs at the insanity of situations, that’s what keeps people sane. I’m not saying I don’t want there to be laughter and humour, but it has to come from within the characters and situations, not introduced from outside artificially.

When this show plays it straight as a drama, it is incredibly good. The final hour, even just the final 10 seconds of the season is heart-stoppingly good. The quality of the acting, the intertwining of characters and storylines and the overall pacing of the plots are superb. The moments of genuine love and happiness among the prisoners are wonderful, the failures and hopelessness are heartbreaking. The show is so good, it’s only when it tries to be something that it doesn’t need to be that it really lets itself down and that’s just frustrating.

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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.

2014/15 Season

I’m getting worse and worse at actually writing stuff promptly. So my end of year wrap up comes after several of the 2015/16 shows have already started. Oh well, better late than never. I’m only talking about US shows here, I think I’m going to move the UK series so that I look at them at the end of the year. Frankly that’s pretty arbitrary but I watch so little UK television that adding it to the list just looked embarrassing. Also I’m focussing more on the returning shows as all the new things got their own little article last week.

Things I’ve watched

The Affair: S1
American Horror Story: Freak Show (S4)
The Americans: S3 (in progress)
Aquarius (in progress)
The Blacklist: S2 (half)
Criminal Minds: S10 (failed to review)
CSI: S15
Defiance: S3 (in progress)
Downton Abbey: S5
Forever: S1 (half)
Game of Thrones: S5 (half)
The Good Wife: S6
Grey’s Anatomy: S11
Jane the Virgin: S1 (review pending)
Justified: S6
Mad Men: S7 Part 2
Madam Secretary: S1 (half)
Marvel’s Agent Carter: S1
Marvel’s Agents of Shield: S2
NCIS: Los Angeles: S6 (failed to review)
The Newsroom: S3
Orange is the New Black: S3 (review pending)
Orphan Black: S3 (just starting)
Penny Dreadful: S2
Perception: S3 (failed to review)
Scandal: S4
Stalker: S1 (failed to review)
Transparent: S1
The Walking Dead: S5

So that’s 27 series, although four of them I only watched part of the season before giving up and four are still in progress. I think that’s probably about 340 episodes? It felt like I watched less television this year, but actually it’s up on last year’s count of 20 series. I think though that a lot of what I watched was just less memorable so it doesn’t feel like I’ve watched as much. 20 episodes each of Criminal Minds, NCIS LA, CSI and Scandal all add up pretty quickly, yet take up remarkably little space in my brain.

I watched six new shows to completion this year, an additional two I made it half way through and actually Orange is the New Black and Justified were both new series for me too which I binge watched from the start and then caught up to the current season. So 10 shows that appear on this year’s list but weren’t on last year’s. In the other direction there were 9 series that I watched last year which didn’t return. Five I chose not to pick up again: Castle (I just got bored with it), The Big Bang Theory (I just missed the start and never felt like catching up), The Following (just too ridiculous), Extant (I don’t think I even got through the whole first season) and The Lost Ship (couldn’t be bothered) . Two I haven’t got round to yet: House of Cards: S3 (it’s in my new Netflix queue) and The Night Shift: S2 (still no UK distributer). Almost Human was cancelled and Fargo didn’t broadcast any new episodes.

The more I think about the list of shows I’ve watched, the more underwhelmed I am with the year. Did I miss something? Have I watched so much TV that I’ve over-dosed and its lost its appeal? I just don’t think anything this year was outstanding. Even the shows that I list below for plaudits are mostly ongoing series that have just continued doing what they do, well. Where were the paradigm shifts? The big evolutions? The watercooler moments? It just feels like a very flat year.

Best Shows
Orange_Is_the_New_Black_Title_CardOrange is the New Black was a show that I’d wanted to watch from the get-go, but couldn’t justify the Netflix cost for. I finally caught up on the first season on dvd and then binged the second and third over a week or so when I finally gave in and signed up to Netflix. The lightness of the humour and the positivity of the relationships is starkly contrasted with the bleakness of the characters’ situations. The acting and writing is wonderful, the slow reveals of characters’ pasts through flashbacks is particularly clever and the whole thing is fresh, original and utterly compelling.

Justified_2010_IntertitleJustified was a great discovery for me, which I should thank Sky Boxsets for. I caught up with the first five seasons in just a few weeks and then got to watch the final season as it broadcast. I loved the whole series, but was particularly impressed that rather than fade away, the final season was actually one of the best. It focussed back on the main trio of characters and played out the uncertainty of “good”, “bad” and “somewehre in between” to the very end. A masterclass in how to close out a series.

americansThe Americans has been slow to reach the UK so I’m only about half way through, but it continues to be absolutely fascinating. The focus is alwasys on the emotional impact of the secrets and lies all the characters have to tell, which is good for me because I often struggle to remember the details of the various conspiracies and am far more interested in watching the phenomenal Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell acting. I feel a bit of a cheat putting something on here that’s only half way through, but it seems unlikely it will take a nosedive now!

Honourable mention: Defiance got off to a surprisingly brutal but very interesting start. There’s so little science fiction on television outside the super-hero genre that it’s a huge relief that this one doesn’t suck.

Favourite Shows
greys anatomyGrey’s Anatomy – only 4 of the original cast are left by the end of season 11. Each time someone leaves I think the show will struggle without them, that their gap will be unfillable, but each time the characters and relationships mature and evolve, not to replace the missing person, but to grow around the gap and evolve the show into something new. I love how the characters have grown, how the relationships mature and how nothing in the past is forgotten, but all makes a part of the present. Yes, it’s a daft soap opera with unbelievable stuff happening, but if you accept that key premise, everything else makes perfect sense. It’s like a comfortable blanket at the end of the day.

Agent_Carter_Series_LogoMarvel’s Agent Carter – while Agents of SHIELD did improve this year it’s still got a lot of problems and the pressure of being a headline show for both ABC and Marvel isn’t helping it. Agent Carter however didn’t have any of the pressure or any of the problems and quietly came along with a phenomenal central cahracter and hugely entertaining story.

Honourable mention: Jane the Virgin was a breath of fresh, if extremely cheesy, air.

Same old, same old (in a mostly good way)
The Walking DeadThe Walking Dead – The relentless pace of The Walking Dead never stops (ironic, given the increasingly shambling nature of the zombies). In the space of twenty odd episodes an incredible amount happened and it’s only through the efficiency of the writing and the talent of the actors that all the characters manage to develop and every nuance is clear. I do wish that we could catch our breath a little, and that the characters could actually find some brief respite and happiness, but I guess that wouldn’t be The Walking Dead.

pennydreadfulPenny Dreadful continues to be an under-watched and under-appreciated gem. The period detail is stunning and the interweaving of various literary characters is fascinating. It’s definitely a show that benefits from watching in chunks though as it is quite easy to lose track of the many different threads.

Mostly honourable mention: Orphan Black has got off to a strong start to season 3 (I’m about 3 episodes in) but its storyline is becoming more convoluted and I hope it’s not going to get lost.

Same old, same old (in a middling way)
CriminalMindsCriminal Minds – I didn’t even bother to review Criminal Minds this year because I honestly have nothing to say and very little recollection of what happened. I mean, I guess it’s safe and familiar (as much as that’s weird to say about a graphically brutal series about serial killers) and it’s not that I want it to be cancelled or dramatically changed, but 10 seasons later it needs some energy.

csiCSI – the final season trundled along much as the last half dozen or so had gone. Unremarkable stories, increasingly losing touch with the actual science and credibility that the show was founded on. Mind you (spoiler alert) having just yesterday watched the final feature length episode, the last season comparatively the creative highpoint of the show.

Middlingly honourable mention: NCIS: Los Angeles continues to have fun with its characters but struggle when it comes to memorable and engaging plots.

Same old, same old (in a bad way)
scandalScandal – oh good lord. It just keeps getting stupider and stupider. The core relationships are all stunningly unhealthy and I endlessly wonder why any of them (friends, colleagues or lovers) stay together when they’re clearly all phenomenally bad for each other and in fact the rest of humanity. I think I might be done.

Game of ThronesGame of Thrones – I’ve finally given up. There’s way too many characters that I really don’t care about, too many drawn out plots that aren’t going anywhere and a complete absence of any real fantasy. I couldn’t take it anymore.

Dishonourable mention: not even James Spader was enough to make me stick with The Blacklist as its convoluted mess of a story left me completely confused and utterly uninterested in who was trustworthy or not.

What happened there?! (in a very bad way)
goodwifeThe Good Wife – I hate seeing The Good Wife down in this section, but the more I think about it, the more frustrated I was by this season. I’d been really looking forward to seeing what would happen with Cary and Alicia’s firm, particularly with Diane joining them… and I was cheated out of it by a ‘too fast’ change of direction that saw Alicia running for State’s Attorney. The ongoing ridiculous arguments with the old firm was just pantomime and Cary’s legal problems were just contrived and frustrating. There’s still a lot of good about the show, but all the major storylines were miss-steps.

Emmy Awards 2015

Emmy AwardEmmy time is here again. Ordinarily I talk on and on about all the categories, but this year I can’t be bothered. So rather than waffle on and on about series that I haven’t seen, I’m just going to cover the drama categories, and then just a couple of other random comments

Mad MenOutstanding Drama Series

  • Better Call Saul: Haven’t seen
  • Downton Abbey: Downton Abbey is at least entertaining, but there are more entertaining shows out there that would never dream of being on the Emmy ballot.
  • Game of Thrones: I only made it a few episodes into the season before acknowledging that I was neither entertained nor challenged, the story was just too poor and meandering.
  • Homeland: Homeland had a great first season and then got disappointing fast, but I’ve heard it had a bit of a turnaround.
  • House of Cards: I haven’t seen the latest season and found season 2 a bit disappointing
  • Mad Men: Splitting Mad Men’s final season in two was manipulative and rude and to me just reinforced how poor the whole thing turned out to be.
  • Orange is the New Black: I’m only half way through season 2 at the moment, but it is absolutely brilliant. I’m also happy to see it in the drama list rather than the comedy where it has been nominated for other awards. I’ve no idea how anyone can consider it to be a comedy. I mean what was the funny bit, the suicide, the violence, the harassment or the rape?

By dropping Mad Men, Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey there’s easily enough space to add in Justified and The Americans, both are series chronically overlooked by the Emmys but ignoring Justified’s final masterclass of a season was particularly cruel. I’d also put in The Walking Dead and The Good Wife, both had seasons which were not their best (particularly The Good Wife which was downright disappointing) but are still a long way better than a lot out there. I didn’t see the seasons of Orphan Black or Sons of Anarchy but they’ve been consistently worthy of nomination in the past. I didn’t watch, but it’s a bit surprising Empire isn’t on the list.

americansLead Actor, Drama

  • Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul) – not seen, no idea
  • Kyle Chandler (Bloodline) – I’ve not seen the show, but I will always love Kyle Chandler for Friday Night Lights
  • Kevin Spacey (House of Cards) – Not seen this season but he’s usually great
  • Jon Hamm (Mad Men) – I really don’t know. I can’t stand the character, the show was pretty poor and the writing mediocre, so how can I really tell what the acting was like?
  • Jeff Daniels (The Newsroom) – no, sorry, but his performance was mostly just shouting Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue, the acting required was minimal.
  • Liev Schreiber (Ray Donovan) – I watched the first episode and wasn’t inspired, but Live Schreiber was pretty good.

I haven’t seen this season’s Sons of Anarchy, but Charlie Hunnam is usually incredible and given the material I know the story was made up of, I’m sure he should be here. Dominic West in The Affair gave a very nuanced performance of the same character from two different points of view. Andrew Lincoln of The Walking Dead continues to do amazing work with material that other actors can only dream of, while Timothy Olyphant had dialogue to die for delivered with such originality that every second was enthralling. Matthew Rhys continues to be shamefully ignored for his performance on The Americans where he plays someone who’s playing so many different roles to different people that they’re all blurring. I didn’t watch much of the season but James Spader is never anything other than excellent in The Blacklist.

orphanblackLead Actress, Drama

  • Taraji P. Henson (Empire) – Haven’t seen
  • Claire Danes (Homeland) – a talented actress, but her character can rely too much on whining and mania rather than subtlety and talent
  • Viola Davis (How to Get Away with Murder) – weirdly, I haven’t seen this Shonda Rhimes series
  • Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) – The fact that Tatiana Maslany finally made it onto this list is about the only thing that The Emmy’s actually did right this year. I haven’t seen the eligible season of Orphan Black, but unless she had some kind of stroke in the time since last season, she surely played all her many characters with depth and charisma.
  • Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men) – a strong season on Mad Men, and while I’m not sure she got enough material to justify a Lead actress credit, her talent is in no doubt.
  • Robin Wright (House of Cards) – probably pretty good on House of Cards, although I have in the past found her character a bit flat, so it depends on the material she got.

This is a phenomenally good year for women on television because I can think of loads of other people who deserve nominations. Ellen Pompeo had an absolutely superb year on Grey’s Anatomy as Meredith found herself and lost her love. It’s a cheesy show, but Pompeo excels. Kerry Washington from Scandal could easily make the cut too. I was utterly blindsided by Hayley Atwell as the titular Agent Carter. The series could have been Agents of SHIELD-lite (even liter), instead it had this amazing woman at its heart, with strength, vulnerability, wit, and uncertainty. She totally blew me away. Similarly in a show that’s notionally about the relationship between two men, the lawman and the criminal, it turned out to be the woman in the middle that was the true heart of the series and Joelle Carter played that power and terror to perfection, while also delivering a lot of the laughs.

Then there’s Ruth Wilson from The Affair who played a conflicted and complicated woman and then played her from two points of view. Eva Green on Penny Dreadful threw herself so much into the role I was genuinely scared she’d hurt herself. Oh and the always superb Julianna Margulies from The Good Wife, not the best writing they’ve ever had, but she was amazing as usual. Oh, oh and I can’t imagine Katey Sagel in Sons of Anarchy suddenly became rubbish either. Oh and Taylor Schilling for Orange is the New Black

Game of ThronesSupporting Actor, Drama

  • Jonathan Banks (Better Call Saul) – no idea
  • Ben Mendelsohn (Bloodline) – no idea
  • Jim Carter (Downton Abbey) – actually this may be the first nomination for Downton that I actually agree with, his storyline with Mrs Hughes was absolutely spot on.
  • Peter Dinklage (Game Of Thrones) – I only made it half way through Game of Thrones, but compared to last year Dinklage’s material wasn’t that incredible, it probably got better after I gave up.
  • Alan Cumming (The Good Wife) – I didn’t hink Alan Cumming had any particularly outstanding material this year, he was great as always, but there didn’t seem anything outstanding, in fact I think Matt Czuchry as Cary had a far more interesting and should’ve had this spot.
  • Michael Kelly (House Of Cards) – interesting. I’m not sure what he was like this year, but I’ve generally found his role focussed too much on creepiness and lacked any real subtelty.

People that are missing, Joshua Jackson was pretty good in the Affair, like the other cast getting to play two different takes on the same character, which is even more interesting when he isn’t one of the ‘narrators’ and hence both versions are in fact opinion and the self-view is never shown. Walton Goggins for Justified (although he could make an argument for joint lead). I heard good things about Mandy Patinkin finally getting some decent material to work with on Homeland

goodwifeSupporting Actress, Drama

  • Joanne Froggatt (Downton Abbey) – her storyline wasn’t as good this year as it was last and she was just too irrititaing.
  • Lena Headey (Game Of Thrones) – I didn’t get far enough into the season of Game of Thrones to see Lena Headey’s big storyline develop, but by all accounts she was phenonmenal,
  • Emilia Clarke (Game Of Thrones) – she’s always good, but I don’t think she’s especially outstanding and I think of the two Headey’s got the edge.
  • Christine Baranski (The Good Wife) – excellent as always, but she was a bit in the background this year
  • Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) – great as always, a good case could be made that it’s her and Elizabeth Olson that are the only redeeming things in Mad Men’s final years.
  • Uzo Aduba (Orange Is The New Black) – I’m not sure that playing crazy like this is necessarily the most impressive achievement. There are so many great performances in that cast I think I’d probably go for Kate Mulgrew but I haven’t quite seen the full season.

I’m a bit less overloaded with other candidates for this list. Bellamy Young on Scandal continues to play every facet of the ridiculous Mellie with originality. . Melissa McBride on The Walking Dead had a great year with some wide ranging material.

transparentComedy

  • Outstanding Comedy Series. The only comedy I actually watched was Jane the Virgin and that was absolutely ridiculously ovrerlooked in the nominations, although even if it was nominated the winner should still be the beautiful and surprisingly funny Transparent.
  • Lead Actress: Seriously Gina Rodriguez was incredible, she won the Golden Globe and she’s not even nominated? This year’s evidence that the Emmy nominators are dumb.
  • Lead Actor: Jeffrey Tambor is surely a safe bet for this. I wasn’t expecting how hilarious he was going to be, both with dialogue and the physical comedy.

Oh, hilariously there’s a nomination for Jane the Virgin under Narration, which is wonderful because Anthony Mendez absolutely makes the show with his sarcastic voiceover.

honourablewomanLimited Series or Movie:
I bet Olive Kitteridge wins I couldn’t make it through the first ten minutes it was so painful. The only thing worse would be American Horror Story winning for its entertaining, but far from incredible Freak Show season. I’d be pretty happy with the great Honourable Woman winning, or with Wolf Hall winning even though I didn’t make it more than 10 minutes into that either.
Maggie Gyllenhaal played such an interesting character in The Honourable Woman, completely selling the cold, calm exterior being just a presentation to the world. Extraordinarily good acting. I guess the point of American Horror is for over the top performances and Jessica Lange (lead) and Kathy Bates (supporting) chewed their way through some terrible material with some terrible accents. Sarah Paulson (supportin) however was really rather good playing the conjoined twins.
Television Movie: I’m sorry but Grace of Monaco is nominated here? How bad was the rest of the list because Grace of Monaco is a terrible terrible film!