Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Jenji Kohan and her merry band of misfits. Is she changing the face of the television character? (Spoiler alert!)

In the wee hours this morning (June 6th), one of the most anticipated and talked about television events of the year occurred.  At 3 am here in Texas, season 2 of Orange is the New Black premiered on the streaming service Netflix. About a day before it premiered, I skimmed one article that was analyzing the awesome trailer for the season and the author recommended maybe spending the entire summer watching the 13-episode season instead doing what is now known as binge-watching.  I will first admit, right here, right now that I did not decide to wait, I binge watched the hell out of season 2 and in less than 48 hours (hey I still have to work), I was finished.  It was the visual book I could not put down.

Jenji Kohan is the head writer and executive producer of the Netflix phenom that is Orange is the New Black.  Before that, she is best known being the executive producer of one of the longest running cable programs ever, WeedsWeeds was a revelation.  It was something new and fresh and it was a force to be reckoned with when it hit the small screens. The story of a woman living in an affluent California suburb who starts selling pot after her husband unexpectedly drops dead of a heart attack, starred one of the most versatile actresses in Hollywood, Mary Louise Parker.  She portrayed Nancy Botwin, who at first is just your run-of-the-mill widowed mom of two boys trying to keep her life as together as possible but soon finds out that her new career choice comes with consequences.  Some of the situations were comical but many of them were very serious and of course as the years went on, her life spiraled out of control.

However, I am here to talk about characters and boy, did Nancy have some characters alongside her. There was Doug, the city councilman and one of her biggest customers who was by her side throughout the entire run of the show. One of my favorites was Celia Hodes, portrayed brilliantly by Elizabeth Perkins.  She was one of those suburban moms who wanted the perfect suburban life with perfect husband and perfect child.  Instead, Celia is married to Dean who she thinks is the biggest loser on Earth and her daughter is Isabelle, a young girl with a 'weight problem' and is also a lesbian.  Celia even once said, "I should have had an abortion" while watching her daughter on video.  Nancy has two sons, Silas and Shane.  Silas is the oldest who becomes a force in the pot business.  He is also insanely good looking and hooks up with just about every female he comes in contact with from a deaf girl while he is in high school to a much older divorcee.  Shane is extremely smart but a bit of a sociopath of course.  His extreme protection for his mom in all of her precarious situations put the entire family in grave danger many times.  Then of course, there is Nancy's brother-in-law Andy who, in my opinion, is one of the most interesting, funny, dynamic characters in all of television.  Another aspect that makes Kohan's characters so different than anyone else on television is in the writing and simply the crazy things they say.  Obviously, her top two shows are not network shows so there is no censoring with what the characters say but still, some of the lines that come out of the characters mouths push the envelope even by cable standards.  Any fan of Weeds who has watched the show more than once (I am not going to admit fully that I am one of those people) should remember his classic speech to his nephew Shane about the benefits and the how-tos on masturbating.  I often wonder if that scene was shot in one take because Justin Kirk (actor who portrays Andy) spills his soliloquy so flawlessly, it really should go down as one of the iconic speeches in television history.

There were so many more extremely interesting and complex characters appearing in Weeds including Nancy's dealer in the beginning, Heylia James, a woman not to be messed with but knows how to do business.  One of my favorite lines from her was, "I don't know, I guess you just bring out the fuck you in me."

That takes me to the vast, sweeping character driven vehicle that is Orange is the New Black.  There really is no way to analyze every character in this show without doing a series of reviews (or a full-length novel), there are that many of them.  It is most definitely one of the most successful female driven shows ever.  Most of you might already be familiar with the premise, which is based on the memoir Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison by Piper Kerman.  The title character, Piper Chapman is a young woman living the life in New York City with her fiance, Larry but perfection ends when she is sent to prison for being a drug mule ten years before.  When we meet her in episode one, she is already in prison but throughout the series, we see her life before going in
 as we do with the rest of the inmates.  Chapman is annoying, weak, and incredible naive at first, which is exactly what she is supposed to be.  She grows and gets stronger in a short period of time, which I would think is something that has to happen in prison. Taylor Shilling's performance is not entirely convincing but I do see her growing more in her role as time goes by and Chapman's 'time' goes by.

Of course, at first, even before the show premiered, we knew the star and title character was Chapman, but, and I know I am not just speaking for myself, that there are a bevy characters in this show that are on their way to being stars and title characters.  These women are simply a force in talent and it being such a large group of them, I would have loved to been a fly on the wall during the casting process which had to have taken a really long time.  A very versatile group of actresses, none of them really household names, explode onto the screen with dark, daring, comedic, soul-baring performances speaking dialogue from an equally dark, daring, comedic, and soul-baring script.

One of the most daring performers on the show is Laverne Cox, who portrays transgender woman/hairdresser to the inmates Burset on the show.  Cox, who is a transgender woman herself, was featured on the cover of Time earlier in June and became the first transgender person ever to be on the cover.  Then there is one of my favorites, the recent recipient of the best supporting actress award from the Critics' Choice television awards, Uzo Aduba. Aduba portrays Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren, who delivers a tour-de-force performance in every episode especially in season 2.  She, along with everyone else, up the ante for season 2 when it comes to performances.  They were all great in season 1 but in season 2, we got to know them more with layer after layer exposed.  Kate Mulgrew is one of the most established actresses of the bunch, best known for her role on Star Trek: Voyager.  She portrays "Red," disgraced former head of the kitchen crew now trying to connive her way back in, however, runs into a major roadblock in season 2 when a 'friend' from the past comes back to the prison. Another face we know is Natasha Lyonne, famous for her role in the first two American Pie movies.  She plays Nichols, whose constant sarcastic wit and promiscuity hides the fact that she wants to find some kind of real companionship, even behind bars.  We also got to see one of the most anticipated appearances in the show, portraying the enigmatic Alex Vause, Laura Prepron (That 70's Show).  Vause was Chapman's girlfriend ten years before and the drug dealer Chapman ran drugs for which is what landed her in prison in the first place. At first, Vause is a little difficult to read which is why I had to use the word enigmatic.  She's confident and strong but doesn't show much emotion.  Her role in Season 2 was smaller (only 4 episodes) and I cannot decide if she is sincere or a conniving bitch, or maybe a little of both.  She acts more uppity than Chapman but no one gives her any grief about it.  It has been announced though that she is appearing in every episode of Season 3, which I am very excited about.

The friendship between Poussey (Samira Wiley) and Taystee (Danielle Brooks) is one of the closest bonds in Litchfield.  Even though Poussey has feelings for Taystee, their friendship has still stood the test, even with a roadblock of their own in Season 2.  At first, I wasn't crazy about the relationship between Diaz (Dascha Polanco) and CO Bennett (Matt McGorry)  but they have become almost cute. She and her mother, Mendoza, definitely got off to a rocky start but they have now gotten closer with her pregnancy.  Mendoza, Red's replacement as head of the kitchen crew, definitely holds her own as one of the more aggressive of the inmates but is trying to make it right with her daughter.

Ahhh, what can be said about the little villain of Season 1, Pennsatucky?  Tiffany, if she weren't in prison, would more likely be leading her own cult outside of the razor-sharp wire.  She was quite the devious little twit in Season 1 and part of that big violent end to Season 1.  She is still the one we love to hate in Season 2 but I think we may be liking her just a little bit more now.

I mentioned a 'roadblock' a couple of times and that would be the force of our Season 2 villain, Vee. She is extremely vicious and that is deliciously portrayed by one of my favorite character actresses, Lorraine Toussaint, who I loved in the show Any Day Now.

Then there is the drama with the employees of the Litchfield, and wow, is there some drama.  The most colorful of the characters would definitely have to go to the resident horny little devil, CO Pornstache Mendez.  This is a man who loves the job that everyone else loathes because he gets to push around and yell at a bunch of women who he considers the lowest of the low in society.   Pablo Shrieber's performance is extremely convincing and in-your-face which is exactly as it should be.  The young CO Bennett gets a lot of attention for knocking up Diaz, which is a very interesting storyline.  I am interested to see how it develops in Season 3 and when she finally gives birth. Will he take care of the baby himself while she is in prison?

Obviously this entry is so long because of the critiquing of two great shows, both with large casts.  I actually feel bad about all the characters I left out and I left out a lot of them.  Jenji Kohan has paved her own way and it is a perfect time for that to happen.  Her characters and story lines are dark and humorous.  They are about people in situations that seem could really happen and that cannot be easy to do with the outlandish things that happens to them.  The last several years, television has experienced an astonishing creative renaissance, with millions of people tuning into shows with jaw-dropping twists and turns which are generating news headlines week after week.   Orange is the New Black is one of those shows and I personally cannot wait to see what the future holds for the inmates and employees of Litchfield.  It is clearly apparent that these women are literally changing the face of the television character which is something that is not a crime.

Thank you and see you at the next blog.

No comments:

Post a Comment