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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Posted in Television

Orange is the New Black

orange-is-the-new-black-season-2-cast

Watch out, cable TV. Netflix is in the house.

After spending the last week absorbed in, by and around “Orange is the New Black,” I can tell you this show has earned every word of praise that’s come its way (and how). Netflix’s latest series reinvents the “women in prison” genre, but it’s miles removed from old classics like “Caged” and even newer versions like the excellent British show”Bad Girls.” Like the best premium cable has to offer, “Orange is the New Black” juxtaposes its dark humor with some slap-in-the-face drama. One minute you’re laughing hysterically, only to be cut short when you’re forced to witness yet another indignity, yet another deprivation of humanity. It’s quite a brew.

At the outset we meet Piper Chapman, seemingly your typical soon-to-be newlywed, but in reality, one with a Past, capital “P.” You see, ten years before, when our Pipes was young, dumb and in love, she was a drug courier for her then-girlfriend, the charismatic Alex Vause. But it seems the law, having caught up with Alex and her associates, wants Piper behind bars for her role in the heroin trafficking enterprise. So dear, sweet Piper, now engaged to a clueless Larry Bloom, is on her way to a federal pen for 15 months. And who does she encounter? Alex, who may or may not have ratted her out to the feds. We’re not quite sure how to take all this—comedy or tragedy?— and indeed, the tone of the first episode is uncertain. But the series almost immediately shifts into gear with the second episode, and from then on, it just gets better and better. Yes, there’s one clinker of an episode (the one with the chicken), but fortunately with a cast this large and about eight different plots percolating simultaneously, you barely feel the bump in the road.

My favorite aspect of the series is its manner of storytelling. We only learn about Piper and her fellow inmates incrementally—what crimes they committed, what their backgrounds were, how they related to their significant others and parents—through brief flashbacks. Not all is revealed in any one episode, and in fact, some of these plots were barely under way by the end of the season (I’m intrigued by what put Red, who seemingly joined a cadre of Russian Mafia types, behind bars). But perhaps the most riveting back story is revealed the old-fashioned way, in a monologue delivered by Yoga Jones (Constance Shulman), who describes to a fellow inmate exactly how she ended up killing an eight year-old boy. And wonder of wonders, there’s follow-through. When Piper tells a young participant in a “Scared Straight” program that the most frightening person she’d meet in prison is herself, the season’s conclusion proves her words—and then some.

It goes without saying that the acting is extraordinary. The supporting cast is just this side of phenomenal, though Natasha Lyonne as ex-junkie and rehab veteran Nicky Nichols may be in a class by herself. She has the crumpled voice and sarcastic demeanor of the great broads of classic Hollywood films—Iris Adrian, of “Roxie Hart” fame (“Got a butt, buddy?”) must be her spiritual grandmother. As Piper, Taylor Schilling is that rare bird: a very pretty girl with superb comic timing. She’s easily matched by Laura Prepon as Alex in both the light and dark aspects of the story, and their chemistry is undeniable (aka, “Yeah, they’re really hot together”).

“Orange is the New Black” could easily fall into cliché, but it hasn’t done so yet. The show runners have been very smart in resisting the obvious in their various story lines: Daya’s pregnancy, Pennsatucky’s holy roller band of renown, Taystee’s willing return to jail, Miss Claudette’s failed appeal (I hope she gets out of max soon, because Michelle Hurst is terrific in the part). My only complaint is that the men, with the sole exception of Piper’s brother Scott, are fairly one-dimensional. Prison Officer Mendez, known as Pornstache, is a drug-dealing bastard, Officer Bennett is naive, Prison Administrator Caputo is just wrong about everything, Officer Healy is a homophobe and Larry, Piper’s fiancé, is a nebbish. As to Healy, though, I did feel a distant pang over his being set up by his mail-order Russian bride who’s only in it for the citizenship. The scene in his office, with Red (the formidable Kate Mulgrew) acting as both translator and marriage counselor, is a riot (“He’s got a government job, dummy”), Only Scott, whom I adore, sounds a different note. Living in a trailer in the woods, miles away from Manhattan madness and family drama, he’s a breath of fresh air—his scenes are all too few.

The beauty of watching this on Netflix is that the option is yours—you can binge watch or take your time, but in either case, go back to savor some brilliance.  Have fun—it’s the best show around.

Posted in Baseball, Brain Bits, Observations, Television

Brain Bits for the End of July

It’s nearly 4:00 p.m. on Sunday as I write this, with aching back and Bar Keeper’s Friend Cleanser streaked over my nose. Why, you may ask? Well, three days ago I had new windows installed in my condo, and I’ve just spent several hours trying to determine what is just goop on the panes as opposed to what are cracks which would necessitate replacement sashes. Get this: out of eight new windows installed, three are damaged. And that’s just what I can see from the inside; the installer is returning next week to check the outside. Can’t anything ever be done right the first time?

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© The New Yorker
© The New Yorker

It’s been a great couple of weeks for lying and self-delusion, hasn’t it? First up was Ryan Braun, the Milwaukee Brewers star outfielder, who beat the steroid rap last year only to meekly cut a deal with Major League Baseball over the Biogenesis mess. Then there’s Eliot Spitzer, forced out as Governor of New York when his connoisseuership of call girls came to light, now running for Comptroller of New York City. And best of all, ex-Congressman Anthony Weiner, Mr. Show-Off himself, running for Mayor of New York, but once again caught displaying his assets on social media long after his resignation from office.

Let’s dissect these one by one, OK?

Braun irks me the most because I defended the guy last year when his 50-game suspension for failing a drug test was overturned on appeal. People were screaming that he got off on a technicality, but I stuck up for him. As an attorney I believe in due process, and it bothered me that so many thought Major League Baseball should get a pass for not following its own rules regarding the collection and transmission of test samples. Of course there’s a concept called “harmless error,” but Arbitrator Shyam Das rightly didn’t buy it (My guess is Braun’s sample wasn’t the first that MLB ever mishandled, and Das may have just been fed up with Big Boss arrogance).

But Braun’s behavior in the ensuing months caused more than a few eyebrows, including mine, to be raised. Verbally tarring and feathering Dino Laurenzi, the urine sample collector, for one. Playing the martyr for another. And then the inclusion of his name in Biogenesis’ records comes to light. With no way out, Braun cut himself what seems to be a sweet deal with MLB: a 65-game suspension which ends his 2013 season so that he can report to Spring Training all refreshed and ready to play ball. But of course the stain is now permanent, his credibility with his teammates, friends and fans is shot, and no matter how well he plays for the remainder of his career, he’ll never make Cooperstown. Some say he should be stripped of his 2011 Most Valuable Player Award. They may be right.

I wasn’t planning on wasting my time on Eliot Spitzer—after all, I live in New Jersey and he’s New York City’s headache—but one of his TV ads nearly caused me to blow a gasket. Get this for arrogance: after relating several examples of how he stuck up for the Little Guy, he says “Everybody should get a fair shake. I would hope that New York City voters would do the same for me.” Hello? You got your fair shake when you were elected Governor. The fact that you blew $80,000 on call girls and were forced to resign is on you, not the voters. But you know what? I bet he wins in a walk—dumbed-down electorates exist everywhere these days.

And last but not least, we have Anthony Weiner, former Congressman, who literally can not keep it in his pants. His candidacy for New York City Mayor is now a sarcastic joke. It’s hard to believe that after this week’s revelations there are still people who are saying his sex life is a private matter. You’ve got to be kidding. What privacy? This is a guy who didn’t engage in one affair that became public—he let it all hang out on social media with several women (the number of recipients he “may have” texted is increasing daily). Yet he entered the race, knowing damn well that any one of the women he solicited long after he resigned could come forward during the campaign, or worse, after his election to office. And let’s not forget the nature of his behavior, which is basically a high-tech version of the old perv in a raincoat flashing women on the street. What a great face for the City of New York. Today the news broke that his campaign manager has resigned. Let’s hope that Weiner follows his example and exits the race this week.

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The Fosters
The Fosters

Summer’s a great time to enjoy new TV shows and catch up on what you’ve missed during the previous months. So far I’ve seen two winners and one outright disappointment. Let’s dispose of the latter first: “Top of the Lake,” the Sundance Channel mini-series starring Elisabeth Moss as a police detective. Yes, she’s wonderful, the actors are great and the New Zealand scenery is breathtaking, BUT: (a) it should have been six episodes, not seven; (b) Ms. Moss’s character becomes unaccountably stupid as the series progresses (c) there’s a screamingly large plot-hole in the mystery and (d) you’d have to be unconscious not to get who the bad guy is, which I absolutely hate. It’s hard to believe this was Jane Campion’s creation. Spend your time elsewhere.

The two winners are “Orange is the New Black,” the Netflix series which is almost as good as the raves it’s getting (Taylor Schilling, as New Prisoner Piper Chapman, is superb), and surprisingly, “The Fosters,” which has its season-ender tomorrow night on the ABC Family Channel.  This one’s gotten some press because it involves a lesbian couple whose family includes adopted and foster children. Its appeal, aside from some excellent acting by adults and kids alike, lies in being so refreshingly free of cliché and After-School Special preaching. Yes, it’s got heart, but there’s a brain to go with it. Here’s hoping “The Fosters” get to stick around for another season.