Archive for orange is the new black

The Schmidt Girl

Posted in American TV Shows, Behind-The-Scenes, Internet TV, Reviews, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2016 by Tom Steward

Netflix is a revolution in television delivery, but the same can’t be said for content. Until very recently, that is. The ability to watch an entire season of a program as soon it was released made dramas like Orange is the New Black and House of Cards seem tremendously interesting and complex. But if the same derivative, underwritten and overacted series were offered as weekly recurring fare, they would simply never invite comparison to the original dramatic achievements of HBO, FX and AMC (ranked in order and not accidentally, by the way) or even video-on-demand rivals (and successors) Amazon Prime and Hulu. But now Netflix has something that can genuinely rival the very best of television. It’s not a drama nor did it begin life on the web. In fact, it’s a series that remains indebted to its pre-history as a major network show and its esteemed lineage in television.

unbreakable

Mr. and Mrs. Robot

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a sitcom originally developed by NBC that was eventually sold to Netflix following concerns about the network’s intentions for and confidence in the project. Created by 30 Rock alumni Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, it also features many of the cast from the endlessly brilliant sitcom that savaged the world of network television. Part of the success of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is its elevation to star billing of actors who were bit players in NBC’s now sadly-burst bubble of sitcom genius in the noughties and its strategic placing of the legends of that era on a dream subs bench of scene-stealers. Ellie Kemper, who played the naïve receptionist Erin in The Office, is the titular character here, and Titus Burgess, seen as PA D’Fwan in the weak Bravo parody episodes of 30 Rock, looms large as roommate Titus (Andromedon) with Tina Fey and Jane Krakowski foils.

Whoever at NBC made Tina Fey look elsewhere for a home deserves a sitcom to be written about them but since Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was conceived within network censorship standards, it streamed on Netflix with little of the obscenity you might expect from a service that competes with unregulated cable and VOD. Again, this quirk is crucial to the appeal of the series. It developed a family audience because of its (surface) suitability to all viewers which only served to reinforce an already-existing sweet, sentimental streak that is much rarer in the adult sitcom domain than in network primetime. The calibre and reputation of antecedent 30 Rock precedes Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but doesn’t eclipse it. As innovative and creative as it was, 30 Rock was looking back to something that had been lost, whether in TV or the culture, while its successor seems rooted in the problems of our times.

But Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt builds on what 30 Rock did to make live-action sitcom a limitless art form, something that previously had only been achieved and been possible in animated comedy. Nothing is too far, near, high or low for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Cartoons, meta-musicals and puppets are not out of place here. Lowest-common-denominator gags and obscure, elitist sniggers sit side-by-side in a harmony that never looks imbalanced. There are a whole bunch of sub-worlds which permeate whole episodes and seasons, from a counter-factual Great American Songbook to realities intruding on other TV universes. Find me another sitcom that could make Mad Men’s Don Draper and The Reverend Wayne Gary Wayne the same person. And that’s before taking into account what the show has to say about the world we live in, be it auto-tuned viral videos of human atrocity or the ubiquity of Robert Durst as an urban pedestrian.

unbreakable 2

Mama Dolmio

So why do I think of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt as the bedfellow of series like The Sopranos, Deadwood or Breaking Bad? Sure, they all have sitcom-like elements but that’s not the reason. It’s because these shows are the only points of comparison for the kind of in-depth archetype-deconstruction, devastating cultural commentary, and sublime stylistic reinvention that Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt achieves in the sitcom genre. The only antipathy the show has engendered has come with its sophisticated signification of social caricatures – mainly racial and ethnic – which, even though any shortcomings are quickly asked-and-answered, seem to convey actual racism to some viewers. Whereas typically such problems are a result of the laziness of the writing, in this instance it is a testament to how complex and multi-faceted the show’s representations of stereotype and cultural attitudes are. This is not sitcom doing good badly; it’s a sitcom raising the bar on what’s good.

Tremendous

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, TV Criticism with tags , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2014 by Tom Steward

It’s not often that I pay attention to what critics say about TV. It’s hard to keep faith in an institution that lauds white woman’s burden Orange is the New Black and by-the-numbers re-make House of Cards as the leading television of our time. On the rare occasions I do listen to TV critics, I always regret it bitterly. It was underwhelming reviews that prevented me from watching David Simon and Eric Overmeyer’s superb series about music and recovery in a post-Katrina New Orleans Treme until now. Of course, I should have found out for myself, but with the unanimous adoration of Simon’s The Wire I thought I could trust critics to evaluate his work for me. But I forgot that – much like the interplay of public institutions in The Wire – TV criticism is a game, and the rules demand that anything which follows a universally acknowledged masterpiece must be panned, regardless of whether it’s actually any good. If it was simply their loss, I wouldn’t care at all. But critics still have the cultural power to determine what we should watch, perhaps more now that there is more to choose from. And, believe me, it’s our loss.

Just another day in New Orleans.

Just another day in New Orleans.

Read the reviews of Treme and they’ll tell you time and again that it’s full of unsympathetic characters and slow and meandering storylines without a lick of the complexity or profundity of The Wire. First of all, I thought we all agreed having ambiguous characters on TV was a good thing. We spent the last five years fawning over teacher-turned-druglord Walter White on Breaking Bad and the previous eight over family man mob kingpin Tony Soprano. The characters in Treme might acts like dicks, self-destruct and show themselves up, but they’re not sociopaths or venal criminals. The writers aren’t even using Katrina as an excuse for their bad behaviour. Like their city, they’re doing as much harm to themselves as has been done to them. We’re supposed to have sympathy for the people of New Orleans because of the atrocities they suffered, not because they’re flawless human beings. Besides if you can’t see their redeeming characteristics, you haven’t watched enough. Treme is musical television and the storylines naturally go slower because they’re continually (and gloriously!) interrupted by song breaks. Plus, I don’t think the story proceeds much slower than The Wire with its depiction of the drudgery of police work.

Treme is driven by character not story and hence take its sweet time observing and developing characters without being carried away by the momentum of plot. It’s just as regional as the Baltimore-set The Wire and that was never an obstacle to significant drama. As the series is always saying, New Orleans is much more important to America than America thinks. It’s overflowing with local history and culture – not least centuries of jazz and blues that pour from the lips of every musical number – which tempers the idea that Treme is a knee-jerk reaction to contemporary events. I can only imagine that people are put-off by their ignorance of New Orleans and maybe even jazz in general. I am woefully ignorant about New Orleans, and if I ever thought I wasn’t Treme showed me otherwise, but the series is happy to induct us philistines. Scenes featuring tourists and armchair critics of New Orleans offer an outsider’s eye while rectifying some of the lazy, abusive myths about the city’s cultural redundancy. I know a little more about jazz, but Treme is way more critical of jazz snobs than those who use the genre to have a funky good time.

See that John Goodman, that's me that is.

See that John Goodman, that’s me that is.

Treme frequently airs the view that New Orleans lacks moral fibre, and from the looks of the local diet perhaps actual fibre too. Television too has shouldered the brunt of these kinds of self-righteous attacks, often being portrayed as bad for your health and your humanity. With Treme bringing these two villains together, I wonder if viewers think that, unlike other quality TV, the series might be bad for them. It’s certainly been bad for me. As well as carrying the guilt of watching the series through Amazon, a corporate hotbed of employee abuse, I’ve been craving breakfasts covered in mountains of sugar, lunches that elevate sandwiches to art forms, and dinners dunked in batter. And I’ve wanted to drink like I’ve never wanted to drink. ‘Blown Deadline’, the company that produces Treme, is presumably a reference to Simon’s days as a journalist and writer, but it pretty much sums up what’s happened to me since I started watching the series. All the projects I’m involved with are either overdue or delayed, thanks to days spent bingeing on a season at a time. But I’m a better person, because Treme reminds me what life, and good drama, is like.

 

 

Orange is the New Flashback

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Internet TV, Reviews, TV channels, Watching TV with tags , , , , , , , on January 7, 2014 by Tom Steward

In retrospect Lost ruined American television storytelling. Despite the unbeatable meat locker premise of plane crash survivors trapped on a desert island, the series was an exercise in turning story back to front. Each episode was padded with extensive flashbacks detailing the lives and backgrounds of each character which would routinely distract the series from its primary location and central conceit. In periodic flashback, the writers had discovered a structural ploy that could get them out of having to do character development and exposition in the screenplay. US TV writers have been using these throwbacks ever since the success and acclaim of Lost made it acceptable to do so and they are now synonymous with quality. Today you’d be hard pushed to find an American TV drama (and non-studio comedy, for that matter) that doesn’t have flashback hard-wired into its format. Lurching into the past occurs so regularly in the course of coveted TV series such as Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead that it begins to look like a sophisticated way to tell stories.

Lost in the past?

Flashback-in-the-pan storytelling has reached new extremes in the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black. Like Lost, the series has a genre setting-the prison-which can create a self-enclosed world for the drama to play out in. And Jenji Kohan’s series seems equally determined to throw away this potential with lengthy origin stories for each prisoner propping up the episodes. But Orange is the New Black puts the cart before the horse like never before. We’re barely allowed to glimpse inside the walls of the prison before we’re in the televisual time tunnel witnessing protagonist Piper’s road to incarceration. To add insult to injury the life events we’re seeing are not so idiosyncratic as to be completely unimaginable by the (presumably free-thinking) audience. I can figure out in my head what Piper coming on to the idea to make and sell artisanal bath products with her sister looks and sounds like as a dramatic scene. All I need is the knowledge of it. Most subsequent episodes begin with prisoner origin stories instead of the prison.

You’ll see more of the prison here than in the pilot!

This is undoubtedly the culmination of nearly a decade of bumping backstory upfront but it’s also a by-product of Netflix viewing practices. With Netflix series, all of a season’s episodes are released to subscribers at once. Producers and writers have to assume that there are significant numbers of viewers who will consume the episodes in one go. With this in mind, it might be deemed more important to give the audience something to go on to rather than something to go on. With a week (or more) separating each episode of a network-aired series, single instalments must deliver a gain or development of substance to keep viewers going in the meantime. Not so much for Netflix which puts no delays in front of ongoing viewing and hence never has to get anywhere by the ends of episodes. Orange is the New Black can then afford to indulge in flashback as the prison story may be told piecemeal without incurring the same frustration it would in a series where viewers have to wait for new episodes.

Cards on the table. I’m prejudiced against TV using flashbacks to tell stories. It’s so normalised in American TV now that most viewers probably don’t notice, or don’t find it that disagreeable. But I don’t like it because I think it’s a cheat. To put something back in that’s been forgotten about or not properly realised at a later date is fine, as long as it’s a heartfelt apology. To do it with the pretence of complex storytelling, as if it is somehow a better alternative to writing a screenplay properly in the first place, is just dishonest. Used sparingly and as a last resort for conveying information, I think flashback can be massively effective. The governor of all prison dramas Oz had flashbacks to the crimes of all the inmates as they were introduced, but in uninterruptive 10-second blips with startling power and minimum story drag. The Sopranos saved flashbacks for life events that had just been recovered in memory or for moments too painful for characters (or viewers) to endure at the time.

Oz: a prison drama…in prison.

Now that flashbacks are inextricably bound up in what we think of as good television and are favoured in the ascendant Netflix model of TV viewing, American television storytelling is only going to get worse. My only hope is the linear becomes fashionable again when TV flashbacks finally become passé.

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