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Josh Reviews Orange is the New Black Season Six

I mostly enjoyed the season-long prison-riot storyline in Orange is the New Black season five.  But as I was watching it, as I noted in my review, I found myself repeatedly wondering how the show could ever return to any sort of normalcy following those events.  Season six presented creator and show-runner Jenji Kohan’s solution, as the show left behind the minimum security prison that had been its setting for the first five seasons in favor of a new maximum security location.

This was a strong choice.  I respect Ms. Kohan’s willingness to shake up this show in its middle age.  Season five had a completely new structure, with the whole season being set over the course of just a few days’ events.  And now season six has abandoned the familiar Litchfield minimum security prison and moved to an entirely new location.  I like these changes.  On the other hand, this new maximum security prison wound up being fairly similar in many respects to the minimum security facility, enabling the show to return to some more familiar rhythms after the season five riot story.

If my wife wasn’t such a fan if this show, I am not sure I would still be watching this deep into the series.  Orange is the New Black is a different type of show than what I usually watch, but I am continuing to enjoy it.  The show’s ensemble of actors is incredible, and when it can successfully balance the humor and the drama, it has a flavor that I dig.  Sometimes that balance can be off.  (For a show that often winds up in the “comedy” category at awards shows, this can be a tough show to watch at times.  Some of those fast shifts from comedic to tragic don’t quite work for me, and there are times I wish the show would pick a direction and either be more serious/dramatic or lean more heavily into the comedy.)  And sometimes I think the show can lose track of its huge cast, leaving some great characters on the sidelines for too long.  But all that being said, I have grown to be quite invested in the stories of this group of women (and a few men), and I am happy to continue to follow them.  This show features characters and stories that are usually ignored on TV, and I sort of love the show for that.

So, what worked here in season six?

I enjoyed the new setting, and I was pleased at the large number of new characters, guards and inmates, who were introduced.  This show already had an enormous ensemble, so adding in so mnay new characters was a risk, but … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Orange is the New Black: Season Five

Wow, I can’t believe Orange is the New Black is already five years old!  While I have found the series to be somewhat inconsistent, I have enjoyed the ride, and season five was no exception.  The new season picks up seconds after the cliffhanger ending of season four, with Diaz holding a gun to one of the guards.  The entire fifth season follows the events of the prison-riot that follows.

I was excited to see creator Jenji Kohan and her writers explore this new narrative structure, with the entire season depicting the crazy few days of this riot.  It was fun to see the show try out this new structure, and by diving so deeply into the hours of these events, we were allowed to spend a significant amount of time with almost every member of the show’s sprawling ensemble, to see how these events affected each of them differently.  The best aspect of this season was the way it allowed us a deeper focus on so many of the show’s characters.  (The show mostly dropped its flashback format this year, and I am happy about that.  Those flashbacks were great at first — albeit hugely derivative of Lost — but I’d long-since grown tired of them.  I am glad this season mostly focused on the events happening in the here-and-now at Litchfield prison.)

While the first season was primarily about Piper (Taylor Schilling), the show has long-since re-structured itself to have Piper be just one member of a much larger ensemble.  This was a smart change to make.  I enjoyed following Piper’s story in season one, but Orange is the New Black became a much more interesting version of itself as it transformed into such a strong vehicle for telling stories about women of many different colors.  The show has sometimes struggled with trying to still find interesting things for Piper to do.  (I thought the whole business of Piper starting an underground underwear-selling company which then sort of turned into a gang war to be the weakest part of seasons three and four.)  I was pleased that, here in season five, we still followed Piper’s story (in a refocusing on her relationship with Laura Prepon’s Alex Vause) without having to have Piper involved in every single important event of the riot.

Danielle Brooks has been a standout since the very beginning as Taystee, and she really got to shine this season, as we followed her impassioned efforts to try to get some sort of justice for the murder of her friend Poussey.  Ms. Brooks is absolutely amazing.

I missed Natasha Lyonne as Nicky Nichols after she seemed to get abruptly written off of the show in season three, … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Orange is the New Black Season Four

The fourth season of Orange is the New Black picks up right after the end of season three with the arrival of a large batch of new prisoners to Litchfield.  The new prisoners, along with a new cadre of COs led by the military Piscatella, added a variety of interesting new characters and stories to the series this season, though I was also pleased by the way season four continued to explore and deepen so many of the familiar characters who make up the Litchfield prison inmates and staff.

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I am pleased that I am enjoying Orange is the New Black as much as I am, this deep into the show’s run.  The show has wisely done what many felt it should have done from the beginning — pushed Piper somewhat to the background, shifting her from being the lead character to being just one member of the show’s vast ensemble.  Piper made sense as the audience surrogate character back in season one.  A key element of that first season was the way the show put the viewer into Piper’s shoes, exploring what it would be like for a relatively sheltered middle-class white person to suddenly be sent to prison.  That worked great in season one.  But the great discovery of that first season — and, I think, the main reason the show worked as well as it did — was the extraordinary richness of all the other (mostly non-white) characters in the prison.  As the show moved into seasons two and three, the Piper character began to feel far less interesting than so many of the other characters, and I started to resent a bit the time spent with her.  I like the new balance that season four has struck.  Piper is still an important character on the show, but she doesn’t feel dramatically more important than Red, or Taystee, or Crazy Eyes, or any of the other characters, and the time given to each of their story-lines felt more balanced to me.

The show has an embarrassment of riches, now, in terms of great characters.  There are so many wonderful characters, all of whom need to be serviced by the show, that this means that sometimes great characters have to be pushed into the background for a time — for instance, Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) doesn’t have much to do this season until the final few episodes — which is a shame but understandable.  For the most part, I was very pleased with the way the show gave time and attention this season to so many of its characters.  OK, there wasn’t such a meaty story-line for Crazy Eyes, but on the other hand there was GREAT stuff … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Orange is the New Black: Season 3

The first season of Orange is the New Black was a delight, a show that felt hugely original and stuffed full of wonderful, complex characters.  The main hook of that first season was the journey of Piper, a relatively ordinary upper middle-class white woman who suddenly found herself in prison.  The Piper character was a terrific audience surrogate as the show explored the world of a woman’s minimum security prison and as Piper, and we, got to know the fascinating array of characters — inmates and guards — found there.  In season two, the Piper character took a backseat as the show dove more deeply into all of the exploring characters.  The season had a strong narrative thrust in the story of Vee, whose arrival at the prison shook up almost all of the characters.

Season three of the show was very enjoyable, though it has neither the excitement of discovery of the first season nor the strong central story-line of the second season.  At this point, the show seems to have settled into something of a comfortable, “comfort food” middle-age.  I continue to enjoy spending time with all of these rich, complicated characters, though perhaps the show has lost some of the creative energy it had at the beginning.

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With the return of Laura Prepon, who plays Piper’s on-again-off-again nemesis-slash-love-interest Alex Vause, I’d expected Piper to return to center stage this season.  But instead, I found her pushed more to the background than ever.  I am not sure whether or not this was intentional on the part of creator and show-runner Jenji Cohen.  Is Piper still supposed to be the lead character of this show?  Or have they decided that we no longer need this “audience surrogate” character and that the show is now less interested in Piper and more interested in the deep bench of other characters of so many ethnicities and backgrounds?  I’m not sure if Jenji Cohen has become less interested in Piper, but I certainly have.  Taylor Schilling does the best she can with what she is given, but I was not at all interested in Piper’s flirtation with new sexy inmate Stella (played by Australian Ruby Rose) nor her turn as panties-selling crime-lord.  Piper has always been portrayed as flighty, but both seemed like sharp left-turns that made it difficult for me to sympathize at all with Piper any more.

The biggest pleasant surprise of season three was the new focus on the Litchfield prison guards and administrators.  Who ever would have though that Caputo (Nick Sandow) — such a despicable figure in season one, masturbating at his office computer — would become one of the show’s most endearing characters?  The present-day story-line casts … [continued]

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UPDATED WITH THE FORCE AWAKENS TRAILER! News Around the Net

Late-breaking update to my last post — take a gander at this new trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens!!

WOW that is a hell of a trailer.  I love hearing Mark Hamill’s voice-over, echoing his words to Leia in Return of the Jedi.  Love the shot of the crashed Star Destroyer… and I love even more seeing the Millenium Falcon fly into what looks like the guts of that ruined Star Destroyer!  And that last shot and that last line… wow.  It’s very weird seeing a very old Han Solo, but I sort of love it.  I still don’t know if this movie is going to be any good, but I have huge love for this trailer.  Pure bliss.

This is amazing.  Just trust me.

This is a great article on Dune from The New Yorker from a little while back.  It is indeed curious that Dune has not penetrated the pop culture the way The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars has.  But for those of us who know and love Dune, it is a treasure.  (And I do love all of Frank Herbert’s five sequels, even though they are imperfect.  Sadly the Dune novels written after Frank Herbert’s death by his son Brian Herbert & Kevin J. Anderson have, for the most part, disappointed.)

Please lord let this be true.  Seventeen additional episodes of Arrested Development??  Let’s do this.

Hey, season two of True Detective is coming!  Can’t wait:

I’m also fairly eager for the third season of Orange is the New Black:

I was surprised by the glum tone of the first trailer for Marvel’s Ant Man.  This new trailer is far stronger, though I’m still a little surprised at how serious they’re making the film look.  Is that really the tone?  I do love that train gag at the end of the trailer, though.

In other Marvel news, this raised my eyebrows: Marvel can’t make a Hulk stand-alone film because Universal retains the rights to any Hulk solo film?  Wow, that is a crazy tangle of legal red-tape.  This doesn’t bug me too much because as awesome and perfect as Mark Ruffalo is as Bruce Banner, I think the Hulk functions best in a supporting role rather than carrying his own movie.  I do hope, though, to someday see a Guardians of the Galaxy/Planet Hulk crossover story-line movie.   I’ve tried to avoid too heavy spoilers for Age of Ultron and the upcoming slate of Marvel films, but various bits and pieces that I have heard and read lead me to suspect that might be coming a few years down the road, and that is awesome.

This new trailer for Terminator: Genisys[continued]

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The Top 15 Episodes of TV in 2014 — Part One!

A few years ago, I had a hard time writing my list of the Ten Best Episodes of TV for that year.  I felt I had a hard time coming up with ten truly great episodes, and I was also discouraged because I was way behind on much of the TV that everyone else seemed excited about that year.  Well, this year I still feel like there is so much great television that I have not had a chance to watch.  I still haven’t finished Breaking Bad (my wife and I are currently in the middle of season three), and I haven’t had a chance to watch any of Boardwalk Empire, House of Cards, The Americans, Hannibal, and several other shows that sound amazing.

But, for all the probably-great TV that I HAVEN’T had a chance to watch this year, there is so much great stuff that I DID have a chance to see.  So much so that, just as I felt the need to expand my usual Top 15 Movies list to a Top 20 this year, I have expanded my usual TV Top Ten list to a Top Fifteen.

And so, without further delay, here is my list of the Top Fifteen Episodes of TV of 2014!

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15. Game of Thrones: “The Mountain and the Viper” (season 4, episode 8, aired on 6/1/14) — I keep waiting for Game of Thrones to slow down or to loose some of the intensity that was so intoxicating when the show began, but that hasn’t happened yet.  Thank goodness!  Season four was incredibly strong, and almost any episode could have made this list.  There are a lot of great moments in “The Mountain and The Viper.”  Arya’s explosion of disbelieving, cathartic laughter when she and the Hound arrive at the Eyrie only to discover that her aunt, Lysa, has just perished, is amazing.  I loved Tyrion’s conversation with his brother Jamie about their slow-witted cousin.  It was incredible to, FINALLY, see Sansa Stark take control of her destiny for the first time on the show, as she puts on a magnificent act in front of the ruling council of the Eyrie in order to convince them that Littlefinger, who murdered Lysa, is in fact innocent of the crime.  But the reason this episode is on my list is because of this episode’s crazy cliffhanger, a standout even for this show that excels for its crazy cliffhangers.  After a season of build-up, Tyrion’s trial by combat begins as Oberyn Martell and the Mountain do battle.  It is an incredible action sequence, one that had me on the edge of my seat as I wondered just what the heck would happen.  I … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Orange is the New Black: Season 2

My wife and I tore through the first season of Orange is the New Black in about a week last October.  (Click here for my review.)  It’s been a long wait for season two!

There are some shows that build gradually to popularity (like Seinfeld), while others explode onto the scene right out of the gate (like Lost). For that latter type of show, the second season can be quite a challenge for the men and women behind the scenes at the show.  There’s a huge challenge to match the excitement and success of that first hit season.  Often, the particular alchemy that made a show successful can be hard to define, even for the key creative people who worked on it, and it can be a harder than expected challenge to capture that lightning in a bottle.  I’ve seen many shows have a great first season and then stumble.

So I was curious, a year later, whether the second season of Orange is the New Black would be able to maintain the quality of the first year.

For me, there’s no question that, watching season two, some of my initial excitement for the show had worn off.  There wasn’t that same thrill at the originality of the premise, nor that same sense of discovery of this new show and all its wonderfully rich characters.  But, of course, that’s to be expected.  The real question is, with that first blush of enthusiasm past, did the second season of Orange is the New Black have as much enjoyment to offer as the first?

I think it did, and watching this second season unfold I was interested to see some of the ways in which creator Jenji Kohan and her fellow creative voices were starting to position the show and its characters for the possibility of a long run.  Some of those ways were a little too writerly obvious.  For instance, early in the season Piper commits perjury in an effort to protect her on-again/off-again flame Alex Voss, which leads to the possibility of an extended prison sentence for her.  This was a little too on the nose for me.  (If she commits more crimes, she can spend more years in the prison, so we can have more seasons of the show!)  But other adjustments were far more clever.

It’s become clear to me, in watching the second season, that the show’s main weakness is that its main character — the white, privileged Piper Chapman — is possibly the least interesting character on the show.  I found her love-her/hate-her ups-and-downs with Alex to be increasingly annoying as the season wore on.  (Something which Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) enjoyably called her towards … [continued]

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The Top 10 Episodes of TV of 2013 — Part Two!

Last week I posted my list of the Top 15 Movies of 2013click here for part one, here for part two, and here for part three.  Yesterday I began my list of the Top 10 Episodes of TV of 2013!  Click here for part one of my list, numbers 10-6.

Claudette has rules. Janae does not appreciate them

5. Orange is the New Black: “Imaginary Enemies” (season 1, episode 4, released on Netflix on 7/11/13) — Piper Chapman has a new roommate in prison, Miss Claudette, and the stern Claudette is not happy that Crazy Eyes has just peed on their floor (at the end of episode three).  Chapman attempts to adjust to her new living situation at the same time as she does her best to fit in at her new work assignment in the electrical shop.  But when she foolishly leaves the shop with a screwdriver still in her sweatshirt pocket, she sets off a prison-wide incident as the guards search frantically for the potential-weapon that is unaccounted for.  In flashbacks, we see a glimpse of Claudette’s life, from her childhood up to the incident that landed her in prison.  The present-day stuff with Chapman is great, and we get some tense drama (as Chapman wonders how the heck she is going to be able to get rid of the screwdriver without anyone knowing that she took it) and also some nutty comedy.  But it’s Miss Claudette’s sad story that made this one of the most heartbreaking episodes of the first season.  (Click here for my review of Orange is the New Black season one.)

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4. Game of Thrones: “The Rains of Castamere” (season 3, episode 9, aired on 6/2/13) — Game of Thrones has shocked me before (most notably with the death of you-know-who in the penultimate episode of season one), but I was dumbstruck by the craziness that went down at the climax of this episode.  I managed to get to the Red Wedding without being at all spoiled for what was going to go down, so the events of this episode were a huge shock to me.  But while the shocking death in season one made me fall in love with the show, the brutal killing-off of numerous beloved main characters in this episode made me deeply angry.  Which was of course the point.  This episode HURT, so much so that I am not at all eager to ever watch this episode again.  Just thinking about it makes me deeply angry.  That George R.R. Martin and show-runners David Benioff & D. B. Weiss could affect me so deeply with the goings-on in their fantasy show is a mark of how extraordinary this series is.  My … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Orange is the New Black Season One!

A few weeks ago, my wife convinced me that we needed to check out Netflix’s series (that was released over the summer) Orange is the New Black.  I am glad she did, because we tore through the series’ thirteen-episode first season in just a little over a week, and I am thrilled that work is already underway on a season two.

Created by Jenji Kohan, the series is based on Piper Kerman’s memoir Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison.  The set-up of the show is strongly based on Ms. Kerman’s memoir, though from what I have read of the book it seems like the show starts to go in some very different directions by the end of the first season.

The series begins on Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling)’s first day in prison.  Piper is a happy yuppie, engaged to be married to Larry (Jason Biggs), when she is arrested for smuggling drugs — a crime she committed a decade earlier.  She self-surrenders, and in the blink of an eye everything she knew of her life is changed, and she is in prison.  The series follows Piper’s attempts to navigate the completely unfamiliar and sometimes scary world of a women’s correctional facility, while also trying to hold on to what had been her “normal” life on the outside through her phone calls and visits from her fiancé and family.

More than anything, I love the tone of Orange is the New Black.  The show is a drama, and doesn’t shy away from dealing with some tough territory.  We see the many small (and occasionally large) humiliations that Chapman (all the inmates refer to one another by their last names, rather than their first) must undergo, and as we get to know many of the other inmates who she encounters, we learn about their stories — almost all of which are terribly sad.  But this isn’t Oz.  The show is, surprisingly, very seldom downbeat.  There is a lot of humor to be found in Orange is the New Black.  The show is goofy at times.  More than that, while I wouldn’t say that the stories on the show are life-affirming — one of the saddest aspects of the show is how utterly without hope so many of the inmates are, in comparison to Chapman, who feels like she is just passing through — but there is a joy to the show in the way it brings to life all of the incredibly unique women who Chapman encounters in prison.

Although the early going focuses on Chapman, the show quickly begins to flesh out many of the other women, and by the end of the thirteen episodes we … [continued]