ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK( SEVENTH AND FINAL SEASON, 2019)
Now I needn’t say anything about this groundbreaking series that hasn’t already been said. But first things first. ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK was the first Netflix original series that I watched with much fondness as it aired on weekends on a channel dedicated to English language programming, here in India. This was in 2015, I guess and back then the very idea that an online show could be a guaranteed success was out of my reach. So was the fact that ‘streaming’ could ever topple traditional television viewing habits or the format in general. Look at where we are now. When we view a wildly original show or work of art that makes a home in our minds and hearts, we spread the word. We owe it our sense of gratitude. Ensemble excellence is what this show achieves or should I say accomplishes.
So as I finally and belatedly watched its final season on the original host that birthed it, that is Netflix, recently, I was humbled by its effective arcs, plea for humanity and justice and the way these formidable ladies managed to toe the line of decorum and self-definition, to generate empathy even within a literal prison, away from a prying, ‘civil’ society that never actually gave them a chance. Oh, the beauty and simultaneous grit of the first five seasons and back and forth between the past and present of Litchfield inmates came back to me. I was thankful to all performers and the team for giving us an unique worldview: that we don’t always need an actual prison to know that social rules often turn us into outcasts.
I was moved here by Piper’s heartbreaking assimilation in society where getting to earn her father’s trust was an uphill battle while the pull towards Alex who’s still in prison made her explore the tantalizing yet sensitively delineated portions of human desires. Alex, on her own part, was transferred to a prison in faraway Ohio due to a spurned security officer’s control and found herself in a complex knot. Taylor Schilling and Laura Prepon delivered the emotional gravitas around these tough situations and offset them with their tender love for each other. I especially loved Taylor’s interactions with her former fiance ( Jason Biggs); their honesty and transparency with each other remained till the end even if their lives took diametrically different turns from how they started.
Among those still at Litchfield are Lolly( the excellent Lori Petty), Suzanne ( an astounding Uzo Aduba), Daya ( Dascha Polanco) et al. Taryn Manning’s Pennsatucky particularly made an impact as she prepared well for her high school tests but a history of neglect by parental figures added fuel to her lack of trust in her own abilities. My heart broke when her successful SAT test results coincided with her tragic suicide, all springing forth from her belief that she just wasn’t enough. It took me back to past seasons where she suffered physical abuse by a jail worker and the internalised pathos of her station called forth for a redressal which she received within Litchfield itself. Equally heartbreaking were arcs for Lorna( Yael Stone) as the loss of her child, her kernel of hope outside prison, made her hit a spiral of mental decline while Red( Kate Mulgrew) suffered early onset dementia compounded by her stay in solitary confinement and yet remained to be a pillar of support for Lorna and her true daughter surrogate Nicky ( Natasha Lyonne)
Elsewhere, best friends Cindy( Adrienne C. Moore) and Taystee( Danielle Brooks, easily the show’s beating heart and conscience) beautifully resonated with their arcs. Cindy made it out in the real world and her tough situation, without an actual home and buoyed by a hopeful reunion with her estranged daughter, stayed with me even as Taystee reeled from her sentence and still made a breakthrough with her financial skills for inmates. I also loved it that Gloria ( Selenis Leyva) was released and I have to say her characterisation is one I will always cherish.
This is also to acknowledge all the numerous cast members I will fondly hold as pop culture fixtures, be it Laverne Cox, the non-speaking old lady/ former nun, Poussey( a great Samira Wiley), Ruby Rose, Judy King, the counsellor, the yoga practicing lady, Daya’s love interest in the security officer, the two Latina best friends and this season’s empathetic and concerned incharge who also shared a history of friendship with Taystee.
ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK properly revolutionized artistic media with its intersections of race, prison reforms and exigent conditions, sexuality, mental health while making the world of civilized hypocrisy question its own judgements and resolve for those on the fringes. It always made us aware of our own prejudices and the truth of social and economic inequity that is perpetuated in cycles through eras. Bless this ensemble. Bless this iconic vision of unity in diversity.
AMERICAN CRIME STORY
This roll of honour will be particularly incomplete without shout-outs to Ryan Murphy’s anthologized ENSEMBLE EXCELLENCE demonstrated in two seasons of AMERICAN CRIME STORY. The first being THE PEOPLE VS O.J SIMPSON(2016) and the second one titled THE ASSASSINATION OF GIANNI VERSACE(2018).
Stripping the gossamer fabric of truth seeking from confounding facts that went into the rich detailing of characterisations and personalities in both seasons, the series has injected a new life into real-life cases that changed the course of history in America and beyond.
So if the first one was an union of courtroom politics assimilating uncomfortably with the cult of celebrity, media wattage and racial legacies, the second looked at how the fraudulent mechanics of capitalism/ materialism created the shape-shifting contours of an Andrew Cunanan.
In Darren Criss’ unforgettable portrayal as Cunanan in THE ASSASSINATION….., he becomes a man-child, a sophisticate, a smooth talker, a gold-digger, spurned lover, a repressed man and self- destructing force who was his own foe and mirror in the first place before he unleashed his beguiling game of death, lies and blackmail on unsuspecting males. This season also brought in two other standouts from Penelope Cruz and Judith Light( who I’ve started to love watching as Angela Bower on classic sitcom WHO’S THE BOSS? on a precious channel running iconic titles from past years,one that I will write about in coming weeks before new year)
Both play women with successful careers who are jolted by the loss of filial and conjugal bonds at the hands of Cunanan and do not waver in rooting for justice or the legacies of a slain brother and a husband respectively. The men’s identities too open up a portal of insecurities and vulnerability offset by strength of these two women who were always treated as equals by them. Word of appreciation should be made of episodes where Andrew’s disturbing and emotionally wrought familial history hints at the monster he will become, taking his examples from a father who sowed the seeds of discord and dishonesty in him as a favourite child. Jon Jon Briones was excellent in his portrayal. As also the parallels drawn between him and Gianni Versace as a child. It is all a matter of inculcating the right values in children and upbringing.
Of course, O.J. SIMPSON is a different beast and its untamed spirit of perseverance is found in the central performances by Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown as prosecuting lawyers helping a polarized and biased public discover every iota of truth behind the icon who was also a grisly murderer and serial abuser of his power. As the impassioned, manipulative but equally invested defending lawyer, Courtney B. Vance is phenomenal at uncovering layers beyond just playing the devil’s advocate quite literally here. I also could identify with John Travolta’s ‘eye on the prize’, abrasive personality as the headlining brains behind the defending team. Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr., of course, is wonderful at showcasing the demonised soul of a wrongdoer whose iconic status acquits him ultimately and sways the national conscience of a community penalized for centuries for being of dark skin. He ultimately bristles because the truth can never go unpunished. For me, David Schwimmer is the conscience of this series as Robert Kardashian, a man who lets the truth shift from a point of blind faith in his best friend towards one of dejection and confronting brutal reality.
Essential episodes here are THE RACE CARD( directed by the iconic John Singleton), MARCIA, MARCIA, MARCIA that shows the lengths to which the eponymous lawyer was castigated for her gender, looks and personal life, A JURY IN JAIL, the pilot and of course the finale titled THE VERDICT.
The ensemble hence in both these instances in AMERICAN CRIME STORY show us the breadth of human experiences, reactions and duplicities. It’s a lesson that filmmakers need to take while revisiting history, in order to bring to light the nooks and crannies buried under recorded facts alone or just sensationalism.
In the concluding part of this post, I implore you to watch UNCLE FRANK, an Amazon Prime Original that is steeped in the beautiful intricacy of bonds clashing with the titular protagonist’s identity, a struggle of grappling with it that lasts till his middle age.
Sophia Lillis and Paul Bettany are brilliant here as a niece and uncle duo that refuses to be held back by conformity while Peter Macdissi as Frank’s soulmate is an extension of joy and optimism despite the odds.
Lois Smith, Margo Martindale ( hailed rightfully as THE CHARACTER ACTOR), Steve Zahn and Judy Greer round out the formidable cast.
Director/Writer Alan Ball has a firm grip on reality where the elongated trauma of being different from established structures puts a burden on life’s trajectory in general but warmth from those who look out for you rescue you from utter despair. Scenes of bonding among the two men and Frank’s niece Beth are wonderful as is the uneasy air when with a buttoned up family. A scene in the last half where the father’s will is laden with revulsion for Frank completely breaks one’s heart as does the untimely end of his teenage bonding with a boy who loved him deeply, shown in moving flashbacks.
‘Gay’ is such a misinterpreted word in general. It represents a state of joy, happiness, light- heartedness and jovial tempers. Historically, it was used in the same sense till the mid 20th century until some custodians of social morality affixed it with a derogatory mode of addressing flesh and blood individuals. God, I’ve heard that hurled my way forever just because I don’t drink, smoke, do drugs, wrestle with and pick on others or display an aggressive nature. Whatever I am is a gift from God and I don’t think anyone has a right to allot a term or designation to my life-force or personality. Or to anyone else. Period.
Watching UNCLE FRANK made me aware of that truth. In a world where established orders of binary abuse and unhappiness continue to rule the roost, choosing to be true to yourself is always a better choice despite the odds.