“Orange is the New Black” Peaks in an Epic, Intense Fourth Season

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Original article: http://bit.ly/28Oa3Aw

When “Orange is the New Black” debuted on Netflix in the summer of 2013, the main narrative focused on the journey of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling, “The Lucky One”), a privileged white woman who adapts and tries to survive a 15-month sentence in Litchfield Penitentiary, a minimum-security women’s prison. However, since then, the series has gradually broadened from a raunchy prison dramedy into something much more humanistic. Throughout each season, we’ve learned about almost all the individual prisoners via flashback sequences, giving us their backstories that are as engrossing as they are tragic. By humanizing these women as victims of circumstance rather than simple criminals, “OITNB” brings a nuanced perspective to the criminal justice system, which continues to be showcased in its fantastic fourth season.

While season four can feel overstuffed at times, it stands out against the previous seasons of “OITNB” by diving deeper into the lives of its characters and how they have developed over their time in Litchfield.

Reeling in from last season’s glorious finale, the season four premiere, “Work That Body For Me,” is a stunning return to form, as every facet of the show’s storytelling — the character work, the dialogue, the drama and the humor — comes into full throttle. After the Litchfield inmates bask in some fleeting moments of freedom in the nearby lake, they’re quickly rounded up back to the prison, where the aftermath of their euphoria is met with overwhelming terror. New arrivals are brought to Litchfield, causing a lack of resources, commotion and overcrowding. Included in the throng of new inmates are two of season four’s most interesting new personalities: Judy King (Blair Brown, “Fringe”), a TV personality cook, and Alison Abdullah (newcomer Amanda Stephen), a Muslim woman who becomes the roommate of recent Jewish convert Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore, “30 Rock”). Both Brown and Stephen play their characters marvelously, with the former evoking a sinister mix of Paula Deen and Martha Stewart and the latter generating an engaging, refreshing presence within Litchfield.

With these new introductions, the burgeoning racial and socioeconomic class divides among the Litchfield prisoners are also highlighted and subsequently provide a sharp social commentary. Racial dynamics have always played a large role in “OITNB,” considering its large cast of Latina, Black, and Asian characters. But a bitter semi-race war between Piper and the Latina prisoners, led by Maria Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel, “Person of Interest”), and a petty, mean-spirited quarrel between Alison and Black Cindy prompts a thought-provoking discussion about how the grittiness of prison life can reflect the world around us. Particularly gripping is the show’s handling of racist beliefs, which attribute to the relationships between the horrible security guards and the Litchfield inmates. The prisoners are already treated terribly with the conditions they’re living in, but with the addition of Litchfield’s racist and misogynistic head guard Piscatella (Brad William Henke, “Fury”), things get very ugly.

Even with large improvements on plot and character development, the fourth season still struggles with some flaws, one being that the flashback sequences aren’t as emotionally potent as the ones from seasons before. The season somewhat glosses over some of its more compelling characters, Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox, “Grandma”) and Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne, “Portlandia”), who are demoted to recurring roles, most likely due to other commitments — Alex (Laura Prepon, “That ‘70s Show”) had a similar situation in the show’s second season. Regardless, the fourth season keeps on pushing boundaries with its absorbing storytelling and provocative plots.

At this point, “OITNB” has cemented its place as one of the most complex, well-crafted and entertaining television shows of the 2010s — and season 4 is its highest point. With its diverse array of characters — women of color, women with mental illness and women who are on the LGBTQ spectrum — the series is a defining example of how modern television shows should represent people who aren’t normally seen on TV. Yes, there’s still plenty of sex, drugs, violence and cursing. But the newest season of “OITNB” has demonstrated the show is less about one woman struggling against the harshness of imprisonment and more of a microcosm of our imperfect, messy cesspool of a society.

Grade: A-

“Casual” Season 2: Wipes the Slate Clean, Starts Fresh

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The last time we left off on the Hulu original series “Casual,” things ended on a seemingly light but deeply tense note.

The show’s protagonist, Valerie (Michaela Watkins, “Transparent”), gets caught in a whirlwind of emotional dysfunction after recklessly sleeping with both her brother’s girlfriend, Emmy (Eliza Coupe, “Happy Endings”), and her daughter’s photography teacher, Michael (Patrick Heusinger, “Frances Ha”). Reeling from this crippling truth, Valerie’s brother Alex (Tommy Dewey, “17 Again”) decides to end his relationship with Emmy. After a period of bitterness and distance, Valerie’s precocious teenage daughter, Laura (Tara Lynne Barr, “God Bless America”), decides to forgive her mother for her actions. What “Casual” essentially teaches is no matter how chaotic things get, family is the only thing that stands above everything else. That may sound clichéd, but “Casual” depicts that lesson with a sharp grittiness that’s uncommon in most TV shows about dysfunctional families.

After its impressive first season, “Casual” returned to the drawing board with exciting new developments and a shift in its thematic focus — while still retaining its deliberate, low-key execution. Coupled with its dark, deadpan humor and tender heart, the second season of “Casual” continues to showcase a refreshing, authentic take on familial and relationship dynamics.

Even with some positive changes on “Casual,” Valerie, Alex and Laura are still dealing with problems beyond their control. In the season opener “Phase 3,” Valerie can’t seem to evade everyday nuisances, whether it’s early morning noise from a throng of loudly chirping birds or the construction next to her office. Simultaneously, Alex attempts to exercise and do yoga in hopes of turning a new leaf from his hedonistic lifestyle. Anxious about going back to school after the events from season one, Laura looks for a new place to learn, reluctantly checking out the district’s public school.

Despite trying to make healthier life choices, the three central characters of “Casual” are completely drained, knowing that they can’t fix the huge messes they’ve made all at once. Fortunately, by helping one another, they seem to deal with their issues much more easily and directly. After making his timid friend Leon (Nyasha Hatendi, “The Ghost Writer”) stand up to Leon’s ex-fiancée, Mara (Karishma Ahluwalia, “Savages”), Alex realizes that he must also face his personal, repressed demons with his relationship to Valerie. “Tell [Mara] how it feels to be betrayed by the person you love most in the world,” Alex says to Leon in front of Mara, signifying his own inner turmoil over Valerie’s betrayal against Alex for sleeping with Emmy. This situation prompts Alex to take matters into his own hands and decides to make the healthiest choice not for himself, but for his niece Laura; he home-schools her, much to Valerie’s chagrin. “You can teach psych,” Alex smugly tells Valerie, who is a licensed therapist.

Like last season, Watkins, Dewey and Barr’s individual performances are still deserving of praise, balancing their roles with edginess and gentleness. Through show creator Zander Lehmann’s acerbic writing and executive producer Jason Reitman’s noteworthy direction, “Casual” continues to build these inherently unlikable people into three-dimensional characters and mundane scenarios into interesting plot set-ups.

The season’s second episode, “Trivial Pursuit,” is also another admirable effort from the producers, writers and actors, as it highlights the second season’s central focus on friendship in the digital age. Valerie is still tackling big life obstacles, both literal — trying to climb over a couch in the middle of her office hallway — and metaphorical — experiencing the effects of the muddled divorce from her ex-husband Drew (Zak Orth, “Wet Hot American Summer”). Alex grows frustrated at Laura’s disinterest in homeschooling and seeks to ignite her academic curiosity through a game of pop culture trivia at a college bar. Of course, things don’t go as planned, which the show spotlights through the hilarious nature of awkward, uncomfortable situations.

Yearning for some connection, Valerie appears unannounced to a birthday party hosted by estranged high school friend Karen (Pell James, “Zodiac”). It’s also where Drew happens to be, causing a series of cringe worthy (and darkly funny) moments once Valerie shows up unannounced. Meanwhile, Laura doesn’t want Alex to force a heavy-handed education on her, but rather to have her stick to a curriculum that’s easiest for her. However, these events eventually fall into place for the three characters, with Alex accepting Laura’s wishes and Valerie meeting a friendly new office neighbor (Katie Aselton, “The League”).

“Casual” makes it hard for these characters to live happy, functional lives, but ultimately satisfies by showing how Valerie, Alex and Laura don’t let their love for one another get in the way of their problems.  

Grade: A-

“Feed the Beast”: An Uneasy Mishmash of Sex, Drugs, Crime, and Cooking

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Considering AMC holds a relatively high standard after producing three critically acclaimed series — “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead” — it makes sense why “Feed the Beast” has received dismal reviews. Based on the Danish TV show “Bankerot” and developed by “Dexter” showrunner Clyde B. Phillips, “Feed the Beast” is missing the “it” factor that made those three aforementioned programs so successful and distinctive among the rest of television. In the show, there aren’t any colorful yet deeply flawed characters, slow-burning drama or tantalizing dialogue — at least, not yet.

While “Feed the Beast” possesses some potential as a fast-paced melodrama, it suffers from middling writing, wooden acting and a lack of chemistry between its two leads. Jim Sturgess (“Across the Universe”) overperforms as the arrogant, cocaine-snorting chef Dion Patras, who gets out of prison after setting his restaurant on fire. His former partner Tommy Moran (David Schwimmer, “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson”) is an alcoholic sommelier-turned-wine-rep and recent widow, his deceased wife Rie (Christine Adams, “Pushing Daisies”) having been part of the duo’s restaurant business. Together, Tommy and Dion are (apparently) a great team, but tensions and past mistakes immediately fuel friction between the two once they reunite.

In terms of its plot, “Feed the Beast” can actually make for an engaging, ambitious story. However, the first episode, aptly titled “Pilot Light,” doesn’t ignite a strong enough fuse to set the story in motion. Within the first 10 minutes of “Feed the Beast,” there’s already a lot going on, especially because it involves sex, drugs and even some violence to boot. After being released from prison, Dion soon finds trouble when he attempts to outrun an angry mob boss named Patrick “The Tooth Fairy” Woichick (Michael Gladis, “Mad Men”), to whom he owes money. Despite Gladis’ best efforts, his character remains bereft of any personality or threatening presence, a bland villain with a ridiculous nickname — is there anything more menacing-sounding than “The Tooth Fairy”?

Meanwhile, a sullen, wine-drinking Tommy attempts to be a caring single parent to his only son T.J. (newcomer Elijah Jacob), who has become silent after witnessing his mother’s tragic death. T.J. is the most interesting character so far on “Feed the Beast,” not just because he doesn’t utter a single line of dialogue, but also because his quietness provides an authentic firmness to the show’s shaky emotional core. Schwimmer’s dramatic chops portraying lookalike and O.J.’s ex-confidant Robert Kardashian on “American Crime Story” were decent enough and are again on display in “Feed the Beast.” However, Schwimmer’s individual performance struggles to develop his troubled character into something profound and three-dimensional. Similarly, Sturgess resorts to making Dion into a loathsome, hot-headed chef stereotype, like Bradley Cooper in “Burnt” or Catherine Zeta-Jones in “No Reservations.” His scenes with Schwimmer also feel as disconnected as their characters, the two flatly and often unnaturally delivering lines to one another, as if Schwimmer and Sturgess were just placed next to one another having met only a minute before shooting.

Other than T.J., the most intriguing aspect about “Feed the Beast” is the food itself. Thanks to some sumptuous cinematography and stylized, quick-cut editing, the food made on the show is almost too savory and mouth-watering to look at. There’s a great fantasy scene at one point, where Dion holds up a plate and describes an eclectic dish of grilled octopus topped with cherry tomatoes, which can only Tommy (and the viewer) sees. In a later sequence, after a spontaneous moment of inspiration, Dion cooks up some heavenly pasta for Tommy and T.J., a sweet gesture that highlights the duo’s complicated, close relationship, only for a fleeting moment.  

Unlike other AMC first-season competitors “Preacher” and “The Night Manager,” “Feed the Beast” hasn’t found its footing right away. It bounces around thematically and tonally, juggling between a mediocre crime subplot, a character study on grief and loss and a food-centric story about the cut-throat environment of high-class cooking. At the moment, “Feed the Beast” seems unsure of itself, focusing on which of the three storylines could be the strongest, instead of how each storyline can prove to be compelling on their own, as well as blending easily with one another. If you come hungry before watching “Feed the Beast,” don’t expect to be full by the end.  

Grade: B-/C+

“Time Traveling Bong”

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Sci-fi and stoners have a funny relationship together. Perhaps it’s because the surreal visuals of the sci-fi genre cater towards consumers of THC. But it’s also possible that the heightened reality of science fiction movies and TV shows provides viewers with an immersive, trippy adventure, especially if time and space travel are involved. What’s even more fascinating is when stoners and sci-fi combine to form a truly psychedelic and hilarious experience. Comedy Central’s three-part special  “Time Traveling Bong” takes the mixed subgenre of sci-fi stoner comedy a step further, showing that you can learn a lot about the past by simply being in it.    

“Time Traveling Bong” is as kooky and silly as you would expect and bears a similar plot to other time-traveling stoner comedies like “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and “Hot Tub Time Machine.” But thanks to the comedic chemistry of its starring “Broad City” leads Ilana Glazer and Paul W. Downs and their socially conscious writing (helped by Downs’ wife Lucia Aniello), “Time Traveling Bong” develops into something much smarter to compensate for its complete ridiculousness.

After weed-loving slacker cousins Sharee and Jeff (Glazer and Downs) find and smoke from a mysterious glass water bong, they are transported into different periods of time, such as the Salem witch trials, the Stone Ages, the early 1960s and ancient Greece. The two explore these realms of history and relish in what each time period has to offer, only to later realize that they don’t actually like living in the past. Thus, they begin their quest to find their way home.

Because the special is separated into three different parts, each titled “The Beginning,” “The Middle” and “The End?,” it’s difficult to build character development in such a short amount of time. But “Time Traveling Bong” does its best to make Jeff and Sharee into grounded, albeit somewhat clueless, human beings.

Similar to Glazer’s “Broad City” persona, Sharee has an optimistic attitude while stuck in her time traveling, partaking in cavemen orgies and helping raise a young Michael Jackson in order to give him the childhood he never had. That being said, Sharee also faces some obstacles along the way, especially when she is immediately cast as a witch in 1600s Salem, while Jeff is praised by the townsfolk, oblivious to their blatant sexism. In addition to his role on “Broad City” and his recent stint on Netflix’s “The Characters,” Downs continues to showcase his funny side here in “Time Traveling Bong,” channeling Jeff as a nice-guy loser whose inability to ejaculate causes him sexual frustration and a sense of ineptitude. When he and Sharee are stuck in the Stone Ages, Jeff becomes so agitated and anxious from having rough intercourse with a few cavewomen that he regretfully asks his cousin, “Can you imagine how terrifying it is to be in a sexual situation where at any moment you could be overpowered?” That kind of comment adds onto the show’s satirical, thought-provoking commentary on the theme of women’s rights in history, which only continues to highlight the qualities of “Time Traveling Bong.”

Despite Downs and Glazer’s committed performances and the special’s unapologetic wackiness, “Time Traveling Bong” is slightly flawed in its execution. Each episode shows Sharee and Jeff’s attempt to fix the past in each era they enter, but they end up making things worse every time. After saving and transporting a few Southern slaves from 1800s to the 1960s, Sharee and Jeff understand that maybe it wasn’t the best decision, considering that Black civil rights were still not recognized. Then, the slaves are swept up by the American army and decide to go to Vietnam, making matters much worse for Sharee and Jeff. The two keep making the same mistakes without realizing the consequences, even if it’s for the greater good of humanity. Then again, this is a sci-fi stoner comedy.

Overall, “Time Traveling Bong” does a tremendous job of recreating the past, with the production design almost perfectly matching each period’s setting, politics and societal norms. Downs and Glazer seem like they’re having a good time with what they and Aniello have created, and considering their “Broad City” fan base, they don’t disappoint at all. Even with our society’s current tumultuous state, “Time Traveling Bong” makes the case that there really is nothing like the present.

Grade: B+

“American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson” Finale Review

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What a season it has been. “The Verdict,” the miniseries finale of “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson,” wrapped up an outstanding 10 episodes that covered almost every significant detail of the 1994 O.J. Simpson trial, from the invasive media coverage to the tense surrounding racial politics. Dramatizations and small inaccuracies aside, Ryan Murphy and Co. have built a masterful depiction of one of the most infamous cases of the 20th century. What’s even more impressive is how the show transformed “The Verdict” into a stellar, breathtaking ending, even when we already knew what the outcome was going to be.

Other than the actual verdict itself, the finale touches on several important aspects regarding the trial, particularly with the closing statements of prosecution duo Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson, “Carol”) and Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown, “Supernatural”) and defense attorney Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance, “Joyful Noise”). Considering how all three lawyers were able to develop compelling points for and against O.J. Simpson, it’s amazing to see how their arguments make the case even more complex. Additionally, it provides another showcase for Paulson, Brown and Vance’s consistently outstanding performances.

After the statements are finished, the remaining jury members are left to determine O.J.’s fate. The sequence of the trial’s ultimate decision between the jury is very telling of what the case is also really about: race. Following the horrific Rodney King beating and the subsequent 1992 L.A. riots, the O.J. trial divided both Black and white americans. In terms of the actual decision, this racial divide reigned true as well: the Black jury members all believe O.J. is innocent, while the two remaining white members think he is guilty. Whether or not this was actually what happened, it’s still very unnerving to watch. However, after only four hours until finalizing their decision, that’s where things get interesting.

The titular climax of “The Verdict” encompasses pretty much every reaction possible before, during and after O.J. is found not guilty for the murder against Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. Thanks to some fantastic editing and clever use of archival footage, a split-screen displays the polarized response from the lawyers, the courtroom audience and those watching on TV screens around the country. The Black community is relieved and cheering in the streets, while the white community is in total disbelief and shock. Though the verdict didn’t incite a resurgence of the ‘92 riots, there’s no doubt that the trial left some tense residue among Americans.

Once the dust settles, “The People v. O.J. Simpson” captures some of the final glimpses of its characters, strengthened especially by the tremendous effort from Murphy’s direction and Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s writing. First, Darden and Cochran share a passive-aggressive exchange about the distortion of the truth behind the case and its lasting effect. Cochran believes Americans are finally recognizing Black civil rights, but Darden counters him, saying that “police in this country will keep arresting us, keep beating us, keep killing us” and tells him straightforwardly that Cochran hasn’t “changed anything for black people here.” This, of course, is a sobering truth that continues to resonate today with police brutality against Black people in America. Later, Darden meets up with Clark and the two discuss their frustrations with not bringing justice to Nicole and Ron. But even in their disappointment, they still have each other.

Then comes O.J. (Cuba Gooding Jr., “Jerry Maguire”), relishing in his freedom but realizing that things are different now. He’s no longer “The Juice” that every football fan loved; he’s still in shackles. The final seconds of “The Verdict” concludes with a haunting image of O.J. walking alone in his backyard and hopelessly gazing at the marble statue of himself, knowing that his reputation will be forever tarnished by this murder, regardless of his race, fame or fortune. Coupled with Bill Withers’s “Ain’t No Sunshine” scoring an epilogue montage of each character, “The People v. O.J. Simpson” finishes on a rather devastating, eerie note: pictures of a smiling Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, ignorant to how their deaths will be taken in vain.

The O.J. verdict may not have brought justice, but “American Crime Story” shined a light on something in modern history that still matters today. And I’ll be damned if it doesn’t sweep the Emmys.  

Grade: A