Posted in Television

Champion Manipulators

One Toxic “Mother-Daughter” Combo

“Orange is the New Black” has come roaring back for its second season on Netflix. It’s always difficult for a smash hit series to maintain that level of excellence, but on balance I think this one has.

We’ve now gotten some pre-prison background on Suzanne (Crazy Eyes), Poussey, Black Cindy, Miss Rosa, Sister Jane and Morello, though we’re still in the dark as to why some of these inmates ended up in Litchfield. But Morello’s story remains a stand-out. We learn she conflated an entire romance with her “fiancé” out of one coffee date, during which he evidently spotted the crazy and dropped her. Whereupon she began to stalk him and his girlfriend, going so far to plant a bomb under the latter’s car. Inasmuch as the luckless object of Morello’s affection is a postal worker, she ended up in a federal pen, creepily smiling her way through her trial. And it even goes downhill from there.

But it’s through Taystee that we meet the sociopath who drives OITNB’s Season Two: Vee, a drug dealer, who ensnares children and teens mired in the foster system into her network of runners and street dealers. She offers them something they’ve never had before—attention, support and family life, of a sort (Dickens’ Fagin comes to mind). She makes it all seem real because she always has her eyes on the prize, as a true sociopath does. In Litchfield she continues to prey upon anyone whom she can use, most pathetically the needy Suzanne, whom she turns into a sadistic henchman always eager for Momma Vee’s love.

The ever-skeptical Red, who knew Vee well during the latter’s earlier period of incarceration, is instantly wary upon their initial encounter in Round Two.  Paybacks abound in terms of territory taken and who runs which racket, until Red, incensed that Vee is dealing drugs inside the prison, tries but fails to strangle her. Vee’s heartfelt call for a truce results in Red’s letting her guard down, to her extreme detriment. But the way the story ultimately plays out is satisfying indeed.

The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences better start inscribing that Emmy now, because it belongs to Lorraine Toussaint for her portrayal of Vee. Whether warm, shrewd or coldly manipulative, there’s not one wrong note in her performance. She strikes exactly the right pitch between realism and larger than life; when she’s on-screen you want even more Vee though you’re totally appalled at what she does. Until this point Lorraine Toussaint has been best known for her appearances on multiple TV shows, including her recurring role as a defense attorney on “Law & Order” and more recently as Sheri Saum’s mother on “The Fosters” (great “Fosters” tweet the other night about grandma being in the pen). But what a break-out role Vee is turning out to be.

There are other things to savor in OITNB: that weird friendship between Pennsatuckey and Healey; Sophia instructing the other inmates re: the design and function of their ladyparts; more Piper and Alex, past and present. But watching Nicky struggle with Vee’s bribe of drugs (was I the only one yelling “Don’t do it!” at the screen?), only to turn the stuff over to Red was perhaps the most heartfelt moment of the season. The funniest by far? Pornstache’s perp walk as he shouts pregnancy advice to Daya (“Don’t eat tuna fish!”). When I read that Mary Steenburgen would be playing his Mom next season, all I could think was “Pornstache has a mother?!?” Good times are definitely ahead.

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She’s Finally Got Your Number, Jackie

I’ve been a fan of “Nurse Jackie” since the beginning, and I’m amazed that after six seasons this show still has the ability to surprise, though not necessarily in a good way. Edie Falco continues to play that most anti- of anti-heroines who seems to sink lower with each episode. Yes, she’s a pill gobbling addict and the hallmark of addiction is that the junk comes before everything—husband/boyfriend, children, friends and conscience—but in the long run can this really be entertainment?

The end of last season saw Jackie relapse on the one-year anniversary of her sobriety, and this year she’s so overboard with the meds she’s managed to (a) steal a doctor’s DEA number to facilitate her trips to the pharmacy (b) entice a dying nun to take the rap for it (c) dump her terrific, supportive cop boyfriend at least twice in super-nasty fashion (d) lure her sponsor into relapse and then trick her into signing herself into rehab on the false promise that she (Jackie) would enter the program with her (e) destroy her rebuilt relationship with her ex-husband by bringing her dealer to the ex’s wedding, and worst of all (f) alienate her supervisor and co-workers by refusing to enter a diversionary program after nearly killing a patient while being high as a kite at work. There’s even more, and it’s all told in twelve increasingly depressing episodes.

It’s tough to watch. Jackie seemed to exhibit no remorse whatsoever, except in the last episode when it finally dawned on her that even her younger daughter has had enough. And yet she still has good old Eddie (Paul Schulze), her pharmacist sidekick, as her enabler. Now there’s a dysfunctional relationship for you—no matter how badly she behaves, she can always cast that line to reel him back in, and he seemingly has no other significant person in his life. At various points I thought he might be breaking away, first when he gave O’Hara a ride on his motorcycle (Eve Best, please come back!), and this season, when he hung out with Antoinette, Jackie’s sponsor (Julie White, who’s been a breath of fresh air). But once again he paved the way for Jackie’s escape from responsibility, soon thwarted by a car accident and her subsequent DUI arrest.

Despite my misgivings about the direction the show has taken, there’s some very fine acting on display here. In addition to Ms. Falco, Anna Deavere Smith is tremendous as Gloria Akalitus, Jackie’s supervisor, and Merritt Wever rightly deserved that Emmy she won as Zoe Barkow, no longer Jackie’s protegé but a true peer who finally sees through all her lies. Dr. Fitch Cooper has even become fun to watch, thanks to Peter Facinelli’s charm; I only wish the show runners had brought back his two moms, but I suppose Blythe Danner/Judith Light and/or Swoosie Kurtz was/were unavailable.

“Nurse Jackie” will be back for a seventh season, and at this point it’s hard to see how she’ll be able to put her life back together. It will literally be kill or cure time.

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