Tag Archives: Netflix

End of Season Report: Making a Murderer, Season 1

25 Jan

Making a Murderer

Making a Murderer is probably the most frustrating and depressing program you’ll watch this (or late last) year, primarily because while, at the end of the day, whatever happens on most shows happens to fictional characters, fictional characters you’re deeply invested in, but fictional characters none the less, Making a Murderer leaves two possibly innocent people who were at the least surely not given a fair shake at justice in prison.

And while of course I want to talk about the quality of the show and not get up on my soapbox, it’s just about impossible to do one without the other, and that’s kind of the point. In a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction series of events, two people are sent to prison for decades for committing a gruesome murder, and the documentarians catch nearly every flaw in our American adversarial criminal justice system along the way: overzealous cops and prosecutors more motivated to get a conviction than get the truth, a law & order jury cowed and skewed in favor of conviction, regardless of the actual evidence, local elected judges willing to generally defer to prosecutors, incompetent defense counselors who don’t have their clients’ interests at heart, and a prioritization of incredibly unreliable witness statements and confessions over scientific evidence.

Oof, that’s a laundry list, and even for a cynic like me, Making a Murderer was able to generate, episode-by-episode a renewed lack-of-faith in the system. On top of everything mentioned above, the series also shines a light on our utter and unflinching trust of police and prosecutors and how “innocent until proven guilty” is basically thrown out the window when defendants are convicted in the court of public opinion by savage media reports that build off of speculation rather than facts. Confirmation bias leads well-meaning cops and lawyers to commit themselves so deeply to the fact that Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey are guilty that they can’t see the obvious problems with the cases that the audience can.

And of all the utter mockeries of justice shown over 10 or so hours, the most tragic and troubling is the story of Brendan Dassey. Stephen Avery’s case is problematic on many levels, but Dassey’s is a complete joke. The only, and I repeat only, evidence the state has on Dassey is a confession, given to two cops when he had no lawyer, where he obviously was cowed into saying things he didn’t believe, very clearly making up fanciful stories to desperately please the investigators. There can be no doubt about this. It’s appallingly obvious to anyone who watches the confession on tape. Forget the blatant malpractice of Dassey’s first lawyer. The mere fact that police officers, prosecutors, judges, and 12 members of what had to be a unanimous jury could watch the tape of his interview and believe he did what he said he did is mind bogglingly troublesome.

So yeah, to sum up, I liked the show. If there’s such a thing as an “important show” without being intolerably pretentious, this might be one. It’s very difficult to sit through at times,and I yelled at my screen like a mad person, but it really provides a no-holds-barred reality based look at our criminal justice system, so when you hear and see claims about how every man and woman is treated equally under the law, and the truth will win out in the end, and the adversarial system serves justice better than the alternative, well, it’s good to be reminded sometimes that that’s just a load of bullshit. And while that’s depressing, it’s better to know than live under an illusion.

Summer 2015 Review: Narcos

2 Sep

Narcos

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the importance of plot in television. Sometimes plot is nothing more than a smokescreen to dig into other aspects of a television show; sometimes plot just gets the viewer on board so the creator can explore characters, relationships, visuals, emotions, and who knows what other themes. Think Hannibal, which had a monster-of-the-week first season only to bring viewers to a crazy and wildly experimental third season where plot was near last on the list of concerns. Rectify has a plot undeniably, but it moves at a snail’s pace so that viewers can take in the reality the characters face.

There’s nothing wrong with plot mattering though, and mattering a lot. The absolute best shows combine a number of elements and plot, or narrative, is a major tool in the TV writer’s toolbox. The Wire focus was wide and deep, but the rise and fall of Avon and Stringer Bell and then Marlo Stanfield was a major hook around which much of the show followed.

They call it storytelling for a reason after all; we like a great story, sometimes everything else be damned. Many mysteries and pulp fiction books are written with nothing but plot in mind. And that finally brings me to the subject of this review, Narcos. Narcos is lacking in many of the elements that denote great television. And it’s not a great show. But damn if it doesn’t have a plot that is immediately intriguing and flows along at smart pace.

Narcos tells a story everyone who has ever watched Entourage has at least a passing knowledge of. It’s about the rise and fall of Columbian drug overlord Pablo Escobar, whose power grew as cocaine took America by storm in the ‘80s. While I still don’t really know the deep details, it’s a story that has obvious movie and TV potential, and there have been several attempts to tell it. Besides the fictional Entourage version, there was a recent film starring Benecio del Toro.

And there’s a reason for all the Hollywood interest. It’s a fascinating story. The sheer size of his empire is staggering, and it’s easy to be attracted to a rise and fall story, even when, or perhaps especially when, the protagonist is a charismatic monster who could be charming, brilliant, and brutal all at once. The story comes from the point of view of a DEA agent who tracked down cocaine in Miami and moved down to Colombia to take the battle to Escobar himself.

That’s pretty much it. There’s a lot of Scorsese-esque narration moving the story along, and adding little historical tidbits and overview. I’m normally not the biggest fan of television narration, but the narration mostly fits into one of the categories I don’t mind as much, merely moving the narrative forward and adding exposition rather than insight. This type of narration can sometimes be superfluous but the story moves along fast enough that skipping forward and setting up scenes with narration isn’t really a problem. There is occasionally some narration which attempts to add big picture personal realizations which I don’t care for, but so far at least that seems to be kept to a minimum.

The protagonists doesn’t seem particularly interesting. The main narrator seems more like a vehicle to describe Escobar’s rise, and Escobar’s story is a lot more interesting than his character. He is a brute egomaniac who murders many, many people, after all. But it’s a well-paced and interesting story, and sometimes that’s enough for a fun view.

Will I watch it again? Yeah, I think I will. It’s nothing so special, but it’s a good story, and there’s some worth to that still.

Summer 2015 Review: Sense8

3 Jul

Sense8

Sense8 spans the globe, telling a story based on a telepathic connection that exists between certain people around the world. In particular, the focus is on eight people who don’t know each other and have never met in person but have some sort of telepathic link and are bound to figure into each other’s lives in important ways from now on. The scope is vast, as would be expected in a TV show from the Wachowski siblings, who were behind good movies like The Matrix, and bad movies like The Matrix sequels (I’m not even going to mention Speed Racer. Oops, I guess I did).

Daryl Hannah plays a woman, struggling in agony, in the ruins of an abandoned church. Naveen Andrews appears next to her, tells her he loves her, and that she can do it, it being, well, who knows, but something difficult, because she insists she can’t, though he eggs her on. We’re led to believe that Andrews is a projection, talking to her through some sort of telepathy. He, any viewer who has watched television or movies would quickly ascertain, is some sort of force for good. He’s countered by an older gentleman, also an apparition, apparently the force for evil, who attempts to persuade Hannah to join his side instead, and he remains convinced that she will, while Andrews insists that she will not. The bad dude comes in in the flesh, causing Hannah to kill herself rather than be apprehended by him.

Somehow, I think, and I could be getting this wrong, we’re led to believe that she somehow activated the powers of the eight people shown throughout the rest of the episode. These eight, four male, and four female, and I’ll run through them quickly in a moment, have all just started seeing visions, both of Hannah herself, and of each other.

Here we go. First, a Chicago cop who works in gangland south Chicago with his partner. Second, a British DJ, whose boyfriend seems intent on robbing some other dude. Third, a Russian guy who with his brother or cousin robs safes. Fourth, a Mexican soap opera-type actor. Fifth, a South Korean businesswoman being overshadowed by her brother. Sixth, an Indian woman who is about to get married to a very successful man she does not love. Seventh, a San Francisco woman who seems to be some sort of intellectual. Eight, a Kenyan van driver.

Some get more screen time in the first episode than others. The cop, the DJ, the San Franciscan, and the Russian thief, get a lot, while the South Korean woman and then Kenyan driver get almost none.

Most serial supernatural shows go out of their way to lay out a premise and several distinct questions in a plot-heavy pilot, trying to pack as much in to get viewers hooked on the story from just 40 minutes. Sense8, possibly because it’s a Netflix original not shown weekly or subject to the traditional pilot process; it had a full season order straight out of the gate – doesn’t feel obliged to do this. There’s a relatively small amount of plot in the pilot.

And so, well, that’s all I have to go on. The set up feels like one a director or writer would love to put issues of fate all over it, but thankfully Sense8, at least initially, refrains from any fate talk; it doesn’t sound like Tim Kring fake-heavy Touch or Heroes. Still, though, and maybe I’m just used to the packing of plot, but it was kind of boring. It looks pretty; and spanning the world, there’s certainly an epic quality which is welcome in a television series. But, there wasn’t enough for me to bite into. Eight people are now telepathic and supposed to do something good, presumably. The series look good. But what it is stuffed with is characters, and while they seem fine enough I don’t really find any of them so interesting I want to know more from the get go.

It’s tough with these types of shows. You make an investment based on guesswork, and hope that it’s rewarded by watching the rest of the season and the series. Is the hook catchy? Are the dialogue, cinematography and character work sophisticated enough to lift the show to being more than merely its plot?

Could Sense8 turn into something really interesting? Maybe. Does it pull me in from the first episode and make me want to immediately watch a second? Not really.  Sense8 certainly aspires to be more than its mere story, and it well could be, but despite the fact that it sometimes seems like it I can’t watch every episode of every halfway decent looking show and Sense8 doesn’t quite make it over the hump.

Will I watch it again? No, not right now, anyway. The production was impressive, but there just wasn’t enough there for me. Maybe if I hear good things from others who have seen it all, I’ll revisit. I’d be very happy to admit I’m wrong.

Summer 2015 Review: Grace and Frankie

25 May

Grace and Frankie

Grace & Frankie is a weird somewhat tonally dissonant half hour show from Netflix starring two legendary actresses in their 70s (and co-starring two legendary actors of the same age) from one of the creators of Friends.  The premise isn’t exactly unique (TV Land mined a very similar premise for Happily Divorced a couple of years back) but it is potentially fruitful and bold in its starring choices of women of retirement age. Unfortunately, it’s not quite compelling enough to be worth following.

Grace (Jane Fonda) is a somewhat uptight and prideful WASP type, who wants to grow old with dignity. She never had a passionate dynamite love affair with her husband, Robert (Martin Sheen), but she liked and respected him, and when she grew up that was more than enough; she liked their life and their children and wanted it to stay that way. Frankie (Lily Tomlin) is a hippie-ish wild child who did have that smoldering relationship with her husband Saul (Sam Waterston), the love of her life. Grace and Frankie have opposite personalities and naturally do not care for one another. Their husbands however are business partners and great friends. Grace and Frankie’s lives are turned upside down when it turns out that their husbands are also long-time lovers and are only now finally coming out to their wives because they want to get married. Grace is pissed, Frankie is heartbroken, and both are crushed. They both, after meeting and receiving sympathy from their respective children, exile themselves to the beach house the two couples share, which had been pitched to them as a financially prudent proposition, but of course was really a convenient love nest for the two husbands.

The series is billed as a comedy, but it’s not very funny. I don’t simply mean it’s supposed to be funny and fails, like Two and a Half Men, although it sometimes tries to be funny and fails. But it’s really much more poignant and melancholy than most traditional half hours; certainly from the get go. That makes a lot of sense when considering how depressing the situation is outside of the high premise. These two women have had their entire lives uprooted when they’re in their 70s and don’t have a lot of time to start over. Their husbands carried on their affair for years, and they desperately want their coming out to be a triumphant celebration of courageous love, but their decision to string along their wives for decades leaves Grace and Frankie holding the bag, alone, in their twilight years.

Grace and Frankie is, at the same time, loaded with very silly, obvious broad comedy which plays on the contrasting Odd Couple-relationship between Grace and Frankie, and which provides a strange contrast to the serious emotion at stake. The climactic scene of the pilot involves Frankie doing peyote to find some peace, while Grace accidentally has some as well, and they have a classic broad comedy drug scene, being outrageously silly while also somehow bonding.

Of the two modes of Grace and Frankie, the poignant emotional side works better; the actresses really are legendary for a reason, and it’s an unusual situation portrayed, especially in that older women are rarely portrayed as protagonists on television. As a comedy, it’s less successful. It’s really not funny and the jokes just don’t come through. I get the idea; dignified elderly ladies doing very stupid things maybe are supposed to be funny, but it isn’t.

Ultimately, Grace and Frankie is an interesting idea, but really not enough to make you come back to watch week after week (or binge, half hour after half hour, as Netflix goes).

Will I watch it again? No. It’s an interesting exercise, not without any merit, and it’s great to see people in their 70s, and women in particular, getting a chance to star. Still, there’s not enough there to be worth watching.

Spring 2015 Review: Bloodline

24 Apr

Bloodline

Bloodline is a new Netflix show from creators Todd A. Kessler, Glenn Kessler, and Daniel Zelamn, the people behind the underrated FX show Damages. Damages came right before FX really hit the big time with Justified and Sons of Anarchy and American Horror Story, but it’s was generally well reviewed by those who watched, and while I stopped watching in the third season, even though I don’t really remember specifically why, the first season in particularly was a well told and well -acted taut legal thriller that doesn’t get enough credit.

Damages relied on a gimmick which is incredibly overused and one of my least favorite; each episode contains some small snippets of present time and then most of the show was flashback (or most of the show in the present and small snippets of flash forward, if you will). Crazy things happened in the present, and the show would then shoot back to the past, so that viewers would wonder how the events could possibly move from point A to point B. The gimmick worked fine for the show as these things go, but it’s a lazy and cheap way to build tension and I was thus disappointed to see the exact same gimmick used in Bloodline’s first episode. I don’t remember Damages pilot exactly, but I think Damages started in the future and moved back, while Bloodline didn’t flash forward until later in the episode. Still, the use was essentially the same.

Bloodline is a family thriller. The patriarch and matriarch of the Rayburn family, played by Sissy Spacek and Sam Shepard, own a bungalow resort on the Florida Keys. They’re beloved around those parts, and the setting of the pilot is a family and friends weekend meant to celebrate a local pier being named after them. They have four grown children. John’s got a family and is in local law enforcement, although not the oldest, he seems like the caretaker. Kevin works with boats, Meg is an attorney. Danny, the oldest, is the black sheep of the family.  He’s nomadic, the least in touch with his family, and seems to have dabbled in drugs and at the least petty crime. He’s always getting into trouble and coming to the family for money, hanging around just long enough to break his mother’s heart when he leaves. Danny’s trouble, is the short of it, we’re led to believe. John clearly cares for him, despite his issues, as does his mother. Kevin and his father are tired of his act and Meg seems somewhere in the middle.

In the pilot, Danny, currently unemployed, is offered a presumably shady job by his crony and old running buddy. Considering the job, he instead decides to try to come back home and work with the family, which would thrill his mother, but not so much his father. After he drinks and does drugs too much and wakes up naked on the sand, any offer of family employment is rescinded and presumably that leaves him to rejoin some life of crime.

So that’s now. In the future it looks like, as John narrates, that he’s taking his brother’s dead or lifeliess body onto a boat and setting fire to it, killing him if he’s not dead already, and it’s implied, by John, that crazy things happened and that he had good reason for taking these actions.

Honestly, the episode was a little underwhelming. The primary cause of tension was the flash-forward, and as I mentioned that’s a gimmick that I don’t particularly care for. The rest of the show was fine; it wasn’t really boring per se and we were getting to know the characters but weighing the intrigue so heavily on the flash forward left the stakes in the present feel pointless. By no means was it a bad episode of television; it was even slightly above competent and the show did resonate with a certain basic standard of quality. The disappointment was only relative to my expectations from Netflix and the cast and creators. The cast is great certainly, the production values are solid, and as I’ve mentioned before I know the creators have done good work in the past, so I’m willing to cut the show a little slack personally going forwards. But as a pilot goes it really could have been better.

Will I watch it again? I think I’m going to but that’s more because of the pedigree and the Netflix connection, which has a pretty solid reputation and gives creators the ability to make slower pilots because they have a full season commitment. Also, I like all these actors. I was a little disappointed in the episode itself, and I wouldn’t have given many similar episodes another chance, but here’s hoping.

Spring 2015 Review: Daredevil

13 Apr

Daredevil

Marvel, which seeks to continue its world domination, and Netflix, which seeks to grow its library of hit TV shows, made a smart decision with Daredevil, a classic but underutilized Marvel character, by taking the property in a slightly different direction than the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While other superhero movies (and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) seem to be getting bigger and bigger – unbelievably powerful superheroes, alien invasions, intergalactic terror, and impending world destruction, Daredevil scales down. Daredevil localizes itself not only within one city, New York, but within one neighborhood within that city, Hell’s Kitchen. Daredevil doesn’t deal with aliens or gods or robots, but with gangsters and corrupt politicians and businessmen. Daredevil battles thugs and henchmen via hand-to-hand combat.

The second way Daredevil differs from his superhero predecessors in film and television is that his day job is actually relevant to the show in a way most other superheroes’ occupations aren’t. Usually these jobs are just a convenient cover for the heroes’ nighttime pursuits. Here, however, Daredevil’s lawyering represents an integral part of his character is a way that’s simply not true for Spiderman as a photographer or Superman as a writer or Batman a wealthy playboy or C.E.O.

Daredevil is about the fight for justice and what’s right, which sounds similar to the motive of just about any other superhero, but Daredevil merges the legal and extralegal avenues toward that goal in a unique way through his work as a defense attorney. The justice he attempts to hand out during his nights is directly connected to his struggle to fight for justice as he truly believes it should be meted out, through the legal system during the day. The courts just need an occasional outside push to help them function correctly.

Daredevil fights are designed to highlight the smaller scale street level (comics term which refers to characters with no or few powers) nature of the characters – dark, martial art clashes in dark alleys under little light.

While Daredevil does take this interesting approach that stands apart in a couple of noteworthy ways from Marvel’s existing properties, it is still a relatively conventional superhero story. There’s not going to be anything groundbreaking here, and Marvel products, as I’ve said before, tend to have high floors but low ceilings. There’s something to be said for that; while I like to see programs shoot for the stars, there’s room for solid but not spectacular entertainment as well. Still, it’s worth pointing out. It’s difficult to be great with the restraints Marvel puts on its programming, but it’s also difficult to be awful. I don’t always like to reward that level of risk averseness, but to its credit, Marvel has done a good job putting enough of its properties closer to their ceiling, relatively low as that may be, that at least the calculation seems to make a lot of sense for them both commercially and creatively.

The acting is competent, the writing is adequate; the dialogue isn’t David Mamet but it doesn’t embarrass itself either. Daredevil is not for people who don’t like superheroes; there simply isn’t enough to differentiate it from what anyone who doesn’t like superheroes don’t like about them to begin with. Those who do, though, will probably find Daredevil enjoyable.

Will I watch it again? Yes. I like superhero shows well enough that I’m watching The Flash, Arrow, and Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.LD, and Daredevil seems like it could be at least as good as any of those, and maybe better.

Spring 2015 Review: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

25 Mar

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a new sitcom from 30 Rock creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock. 30 Rock is one of the best comedies of the 21st century, and while second efforts from well-respected creators don’t always turn out so well, in this case, if you like or love 30 Rock, you’ll like or love Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. That’s not to say the shows are exactly the same, but they are tonally similar enough that I would just about guarantee any fan of the former would like the latter.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt shares 30 Rock’s rapid fire delivery method, its love of wordplay jokes, its over-the-top silliness, and for kicks, one of the four main characters in portrayed by Jane Krakowski, whose Jacqueline Voorhees is pretty much the same as her Jenna Maroney on 30 Rock – rich, entitled, vain, and egocentric.

The show begins with a high concept premise that could be misleading but is worth knowing. Kimmy Schmidt was kidnapped as a teen and spent 15 years underground in a bunker, held captive by a wannabe cult leader/preacher (the amazingly-named Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne) who told her and three other women that the apocalypse had occurred and all life on earth was destroyed beyond the bunker. She and the other captives were eventually found and released, and while the others move back to their small midwestern town, Kimmy decides she wants to use her newfound freedom to take on big New York City. She’s a classic fish-out-of-water, both having never been to a big city, and also being unaware of 15 years of culture and technology, which results in many hilarious miscues.

She moves in with a wannabe theater actor named Titus Andremedon who warms up with to her after displaying initial hostility and gets a job as an assistant for wealthy housewife Voorhees. The three of them, along with Kimmy and Titus’s landlord Lillian, make up the main cast.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is not just good; it’s laugh-out-loud funny, a quality that even many of the sitcoms I watch and enjoy don’t feature on an episode-to-episode basis. Kimmy Schmidt does not shoot for perfect, squeaky-clean writing and plotting. Rather, Kimmy takes a Pete Rose approach – it goes up for 650 at-bats, swinging away over and over again, never passing up an opportunity to insert a joke, and yet its joke-joke-joke approach works because it connects an inordinate number of times. We forgive the inevitable misses because the hits are frequent enough and funny enough to make the trade clearly worthwhile. This scattershot approach leads to plenty of jokes which some people will find funnier than others, but more than enough for everyone to find some they like.

The show was written with Ellie Kemper in mind as Schmidt, and it shows. She’s a perfect choice for the part, and the part is a perfect showcase for her talents. Kimmy Schmidt showcases her sense of comic timing, her physical humor, her ability to be charmingly confused without looking dumb (something The Office unfortunately pushed too far to simply making her stupid), her ability to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, endlessly enthusiastic in the face of countless obstacles, yet not drive a constant cynic like myself off the wall with her good cheer.

Will I watch it again? Yes. Actually, I’ll be honest. It’s a Netflix show with ten half hour episodes. I already finished it, and you probably should too.

Summer 2014 Review: BoJack Horseman

29 Aug

Bojack Hornseman

 

(I’ve fallen way behind on both my TV viewing and writing, but not to worry – dear reader – I don’t give up that easy – I’ve rapidly been viewing the first episode of every new television show of 2014, with the intent of seeing them all by the end of August. To facilitate a respective blog catchup, I’ll be posting lots of much shorter entries on each show with the plan of getting back on track this autumn)

Here’s my latest TV analogy, and I’m proud of this one. Drama is to cooking as comedy is to baking. Drama, even if a bit overcooked or undercooked, a bit over-salted or underseasoned is still going to be pretty good; it’ll retain most of the original flavor, with some minor imperfections. Small mistakes don’t fatally flaw an otherwise solid drama. Comedy, however, is an exact science.  A couple of different word choices, a couple of seconds off, a slight change in intonation or facial expression and a hilarious joke ends instead with an awkward thud or the proverbial sounds of chirping crickets. There simply isn’t necessarily much distance between a hilarious comedy and a mediocre knockoff; attempting to reproduce the sense of humor and style can get you close but at the same time so far off.

BoJack Horseman is sadly a victim of this phenomenon. The show is directed exactly towards me and my ilk, people who were fans of The Simpsons in the ’90s and Family Guy in the ’00s, as well as shows like Arrested Development. The show features quick edits, moving at what it hopes is a joke-a-minute pace. The premise is not a bad one at all; a horse who starred in a 1980s sitcom “Horsin’ Around” is now trying to get his life back on track after spending two decades after the show’s end as a has-been. The voice cast is a dream; Will Arnett in the title role and Aaron Paul, Amy Sedaris, Paul F. Tompkins, and Alison Brie supporting. It’s just a bit off though. So many times, I see what they’re going for; I know that joke, I get the idea. The jokes just don’t quite work. The timing is a not quite right; a couple of words should be cut or added. Sometimes these kind of errors can’t even be spotted on the page, but when you watch the show, they jump out at you immediately. I actually think the animation hurt BoJack in the episode; several jokes that could have been sold just a little bit more with an expression or facial twitch didn’t get any benefit from the animation.

Will I watch it again? No. BoJack Horseman wasn’t entirely without merit. There’s a kernel there; it’s aimed at people like me, and does seem to have an idea what people like me like; it just is having a lot of trouble articulating it. It’s a busy summer though and there’s not enough to justify immediately watching more.

End of Season Report: House of Cards, Season 2

24 Feb

What are the two?

I enjoyed season 1 of House of Cards but it had some serious problems which kept it ranked fairly low on the list of shows that I watch. In season 2, those problems are exacerbated rather than fixed. I’ll probably still watch season 3 and I can’t quite say I didn’t somewhat enjoy my marathoning through the 13 season 2 episodes. It was still on the side of more pleasant and less of a chore (which is always one of the signs before I drop a show). Still, it was a somewhat disappointing season fraught not just with problems that are somewhat inherent to the formula of House of Cards, but with problems that could have been fixed through better planning.

Since unfortunately this review is more about House of Cards’ problems, than its successes, I’ll break down those problems in the two categories I briefly mentioned above. First, the issues inherent to the formula established by House of Cards. Frank Underwood, and to some extent his wife Claire seem virtually omnipotent. Simply put, they always win and get what they want. Sure, it’s not actually that easy, and they face crisis after crisis, but they’re just smarter and more visionary than everybody else, and even more than that have an uncanny ability to manipulate everybody to do exactly what they want, wittingly or unwittingly. The president was putty in Frank’s hands, and even when he suddenly woke up and saw what Frank was doing, Frank won him right back over after a brief respite. You can’t beat Frank and Claire, and at some point that takes a toll on the tension of the show. Sure, there’s something to watching our protagonists come up with a plan and execute it successfully, but this is more than that – it requires so many things to go right that it strains credibility even within the universe of the show where I’m willing to give it some decent leeway.  This was more tolerable in the first season when Frank seemed to play the scrappy underdog (relatively) that many powerful people didn’t give enough credit to, and it was relatively easier to believe that their understimation of Frank put them in a position of weakness. Now, though, it seems hard to imagine people are constantly underestimating him as Vice President.

The lack of both serious crises and more than that credible antagonists make Frank’s victory’s seem more certain and less earned. More than that, considering how many obviously stupid mistakes he makes, one would think he’d be losing more often, or everyone around him is just not particularly competent or even close to his level. Maybe if all his plans didn’t contain so many obvious holes, his winning all the time would be convincing. Again, I’m not even saying he shouldn’t be winning more of the time than not; but the way it feels, is that there is almost never really any chance of him losing.

The breaking the fourth wall in which Frank constantly turns toward the camera could be witty, sharp, and funny – a meta-take on narration (or something) – and sometimes is, but it’s more often unnecessarily on the nose; telling us exactly what he’s doing even when it’s incredibly obvious to anyone paying the slightest bit of attention. It plays right into my much­-ballyhooed (by me) dangers of narration. We get it, Kevin Spacey, I mean Frank Underwood, we see almost every step of your plans, your explanations and wry remarks aren’t adding a whole lot.

Thirdly, the show suffers from a somewhat serious flaw which I think makes it ideal for binge watching and whatever the opposite of ideal is for ruminating about for any period of time. Quickly put, the show doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The machinations, the Frank Underwood-actually-killing-someone, the idea that these mind-bogglingly complicated plans that involve eighteen different moving parts working as smoothly as no real life game of mousetrap has actually worked (seriously, if you got Mousetrap to work, kudos) actually work step by step, is a bit much to take. Again, this isn’t The Wire, or even Homeland, I don’t expect real life or even a close facsimile. But it’s not fantasy world Game of Thrones either. I’m perfectly willing to follow Underwood pretty far down the rabbit hole but the second season continues to want to extend the leash, to a point at which it just it’s too far within the universe of the show. Just be reasonable ridiculous, which I don’t think is too big an ask.

Those issues are not going away and were more or less prevalent in the first season. Here’s some issues that were more particular to this season.

Forget the internal logic of the show, for a minute. There were straight out significant parts of this season that made me think, why is this here, or more coarsely, to simply say out loud, “what the fuck?”. Chief among these are the hacker scenes with Gavin (Jimmi Simpson, Liam McPoyle from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and his guinea pig. What? Why? I get that he will at least hopefully come up in the third season, and the writers are trying to get a head start on setting up that plot but the point of these short fairly meaningless bursts with this character were confounding. Even more confounding, the scene with Xander Feng having sex with the bag over his head. Whaa? Why? In generally, there were just wasted threads that seemed to go nowhere and have unsatisfying conclusions. Lucas was a pretty lousy character who did an awful job of investigating and after his disappearance, any journalism angle largely goes by the wayside. By no means is the show obligated to keep up the journalism plotline, but the parts the made it in and the point at which it was cut out just seemed arbitrary and odd. The same goes for the killing of Zoe Barnes; it was a total shock, which absolutely had some value as a viewer, but beyond that it didn’t seem particularly well thought out. These are some examples, and I could break it down episode by episode, but in sum, there are a lot of these moments, and it feels like the writers just didn’t edit their work very well.

Season 2 could have used more compelling antagonists. It’s hard to get worked up against Gerald McRaney’s Raymond Tusk, and less so even about him than about the bureaucratic pissing match that him and Frank have over the course of the season; it basically feels like the same episode six or seven times in a row as Underwood and Tusk go back and forth. The plots are repetitive and not particularly compelling. If someone who is actually kind of a nerd about politics finds this boring and pointless, I can only imagine what someone with no interest in politics thinks. This all is not even counting what a mind-boggling pushover the president is, compared to Frank.

All this being said, House of Cards probably isn’t going to rank particularly high when I get down to ranking my 2014 shows next year, but I’ll most likely still come back to watch the third season when it comes around because I still think the show has something to offer. So here’s some general advice based on everything I’ve said above. Tighten the damn screws.  You have a while to put together this next season. Stop wasting time; make sure the scenes that are shown, are shown for a reason. Thread the season together smarter and more compellingly; don’t have a back and forth between two characters that sort of just vacillates over points that nobody really cares about. It can be done. I’ll wait for Orange is the New Black in the meantime.

End of Season Report: Orange is the New Black

5 Aug

Orange Is Indeed the New Black

Orange is the New Black largely lived up to the hype.  I’m not quite ready to declare it a great show, but it’s certainly a quite good one, and one that better than any show that I can think of in recent times carefully weaves its web in the narrow spaces between comedy and drama.

In fact, what makes Orange is the New Black successful is its placement at the crossroads of comedy and drama. If it were further down on the drama end of TV’s tone spectrum, the show wouldn’t really work.  The light moments would seem inappropriate, improbable, and feel forced.  The occasionally cartoonish behavior of some of the characters would be hard to fathom, and the sense of humor which pervades Orange is the New Black isn’t the type that would transfer well to a serious show, like The Sopranos or The Wire, shows which are both funny but not silly.

If this show would farther on the comedy end of the TV’s tone spectrum, it wouldn’t really work either.  While it’s funny, in the sense that you watch it and say to yourself occasionally, “that was funny,” it’s not laugh out loud funny like Parks and Recreation or New Girl, and the dramatic subject matter and deep bonds generated between the woman in prison along with the actual gravity of their situation – prison is real, and not a joke – would be under-served by the excess humor.  Too much humor would obscure the legitimate terror Piper and the other women occasionally feel in the prison at the mercy of male guards who can be almost as vindictive as they like.

Prison is both real and absurd in the world of Orange is the New Black; it’s both a terrible, restrictive, and scary place to be and a place in which women have to manage to get by day to day, and the mix between drama and comedy suits that contrast so well.  The girls fight constantly but also stick by each other in difficult situations.  People form deeply meaningful individual relationships and get into petty squabbles.  These women aren’t just criminals who don’t have any natural home in civilian society; they’re people like you and me who made bad decisions when put in difficult situations.  While, as in real prison, the inmates are disproportionately poor and minorities, Piper is the representative for the middle class college-educated white twenty-to-forty something which is one of the prime demographics for Orange is the New Black.  People from any walk of life can make one boneheaded mistake and end up in prison.

A couple of quick notes on qualms with the show. I love the lightness and the girls working together; but occasionally the show pushes too far into whimsy for my taste.  The pageant in the final episode offered some great moments, but the notion that of course the one prisoner who had been silent up to that point saves the day with her surprisingly great voice was a little bit too Glee for me; because it’s part-comedy I’m willing to cut a lot of slack, but come on.  I like Pornstache a lot as a villain (and the great name Pornstache) , and he offers some of the best lines, but there are two problems here.  First, I get he’s an asshole, but does he really have to be so ridiculously stupid that he thinks he’s in love with Daya?.  It offers some funny moments, sure, but I think something’s lost in having a show fully of generally intelligent characters have someone just cartoonishly stupid rather than at least simply regular stupid.  Second, it’s a little bit disappointing overall that while the prisoners are portrayed with such complexities, the guard characters get a surprising lack of depth.  I understand it’s a show about the prisoners first and foremost, but a little more development wouldn’t hurt.  The prisoners, who are criminals, are largely decent people who made mistakes – are the guards all one-sided villains?

Secondly, I think the show pushes a bit too hard to make sure we know almost everyone in jail is objectively a good person, no matter how long they’ve been in prison.  The show chooses to do this with the aid of extremely sympathetic flashbacks which show the main prisoner characters and how they get to where they are now, which is prison.  These flashbacks inevitably portray this behavior in a favorable light; even if they did something wrong, they did it for an understandable reason which we can empathize with.  I think the writers were possibly afraid they couldn’t convince us that prison is loaded with pretty good people if the acts that led them there weren’t relatable, otherwise I’m not sure why they felt this was necessary.  In today’s world of complicated television (and, you know, real life), we have the mental machinery to compute that people who did bad things and made mistakes could be good people at heart. After all that’s where Piper stands and if the show thinks we can’t at least figure out that if Piper’s a pretty decent person, even though she made some mistakes, there’s a good chance some of these other women in prison are also, then the show needs to have a little more faith in itself or the viewers.

Overall, though, I don’t need to spend any more time working on what’s wrong with a show that’s such an enjoyable watch.  I plowed through the episodes, often wanting to start a new one just as a finished the previous, no matter what time it was.

I think the show does a very good job overall in displaying the difficulties in maintaining Piper and Larry’s relationship throughout her prison sentence, and blame for its struggles is apportioned all around.  She is the one with the far more difficult situation, obviously, but he didn’t sign up for this when he entered into a relationship with her.  It’s hard to really gin up sympathy for Larry until Piper decides to take up again with Alex, her ex, but that’s such a big deal that it takes a lot of the weight off Larry’s primary transgression (in terms of the relationship anyway; he can be irritating in some scenes outside of prison, like when he’s complaining to a bartender that he’s kind of but not quite hitting on), which is writing about Piper’s prison experiences without her permission.  That’s pretty bad, but her getting together with Alex is a pretty big stab in the heart as well.  In this writer’s subjective opinion, it’s one thing for Piper to cheat on Larry only in terms of sex while in prison, it’s another entirely when it’s with a woman she was in a long-term relationship with previously.  Either way, it’s clearly a topic they should have seriously discussed earlier. These escalating tensions lead to Larry calling off the engagement by the end of the first season, but at least for me, it was a slightly less emotional moment than it probably was intended to be because it seems inevitable that the two of them will reconcile, though maybe the show will surprise me.

After the first few potential villains for Piper become if not friends, people who seem to be able to at least occasionally see eye-to-eye with her, she does get a nemesis eventually in Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett, and she is well, an idiot, and a character who is hard to sympathize with and who is well, wrong, in just about everything she does., The last scene is of the first season is particularly shocking, but I still felt little sympathy for Pennsatucky; all I felt was “Shit, Piper’s going to get in trouble big time for this one.”  Piper’s impulse control is extremely limited and it’s a problem.  Several times during the show she makes impulsive decisions which get her in to trouble, in situations where she may not wrong, but in which her response is not the best one at the time.  To paraphrase the Dude, sometimes you’re not wrong Piper, you’re just as asshole.  Her sense of entitlement is both a frequent source of humor and of irritation.  While I likely sympathize with it more than many, because I’m afraid I’d act the same way, sometimes I just want to shake her and tell her shut the fuck up.

What makes Orange is the New Black succeed most of all is the love and complexity it imbues its characters with and its impressive ability to display the seemingly obviously truism that  people aren’t usually all right or all wrong, but are usually a little of both. I’m not sure what the natural next phase is for the show’s second season but I’m looking forward to it.

Lastly, the theme song began to grate after watching several episodes in a short period of time; I’m on the first half of this argument, especially since I have a personal policy of never skipping a theme song, no matter how many episodes are watched in a row.