Around the Water Cooler: “True Blood” – The Season 6 Finale & Season Recap (SPOILERS)

THE SPECS:

Who: The show is available to HBO subscribers exclusively, as it is HBO produced original content.  Of course, there are other ways to find it, as it’s kind of massively popular.

What: “True Blood,” a drama wherein vampires have come out of the coffin after the manufacture of a synthetic blood substitute called TruBlood, and a Southern waitress named Sookie Stackhouse, who is a telepath, is at the center of it all (for a more detailed Synopsis, read here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/True_Blood).

When: The Season 6 finale aired on Sunday, August 18, 2013, at 9:00 PM on HBO.

Where: The show is set in fictional Bon Temps, Louisiana, in or around present day.

Why: This show was recommended to me by a friend because I love all things with vampires in them and tend to gravitate toward story lines with fantasy, including supernatural, themes.  I have stuck with it because of 1) vampires; 2) the sense of humor; and 3) hot men, particularly Alexander Skarsgard, better known as Eric Northman, the 1000 year old Viking vampire, and Joe Mangianello, aka Alcide Herveux, the resident werewolf.

How – as in How’s It Going? (THOUGHTS…at present)

This season was, in some ways, better than previous seasons and, in some ways, much worse.  Let’s break it down by character.

Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) – Sookie, it seems, was more of a prop or a plot development than an actual character this season.  While some Sookie haters might have relished her reduced role in favor of the prominence of the vampires, she was also given short shrift in relation to the minor characters that had very little to do and offered little interest to the viewer.  This season was about the emergence of primary villain Warlow, the fairy vampire hybrid, made by Lillith, the god of all vampires, who, as it turns out, murdered Sookie and her brother Jason’s (Ryan Kwanten) parents.  Sookie eventually learns that it was actually her parents who tried to kill her first for fear that Warlow would take her to be his fairy vampire bride, which is how they drowned in the end.  Warlow sees Sookie as a fairy princess with whom he could have a symbiotic relationship of heal and be healed with her blood; when Sookie learns about her parents, she loses faith in most things human and almost agrees to willingly take on the role, given that she feels a strong pull toward Warlow – evidenced by her having reasonably hot consensual sex with him on the fairy plane.  Yet, when she wants Warlow to agree to date her and to be integrated into her society, he turns all evil and almost forces her to be made, until she is saved by Bill (Stephen Moyer), Jason, Andy Bellefleur, Violet (Jason’s new vampire girlfriend), and Adilyn, Andy’s fairy daughter. Good thing her fairy grandfather Niall (Rutger Hauer) gets there in the nick of time to stake Warlow, thereby achieving his long sought-after vengeance for Warlow murdering the Stackhouse line through the ages, including Niall’s parents.  It seemed like an anticlimactic end for Warlow, though.

In the set up half hour of the finale, we learn that Sookie and Alcide are an item (since Sookie’s efforts to throw herself at Sam [Sam Trammell] in the end were ill timed and unsuccessful).  It  also appears that Bill loves her again, and don’t even get me started about Eric.

Jason Stackhouse (Ryan Kwanten) – Jason had an interesting season.  First, he hates vampires and wants them all dead after finding out that his parents were murdered in cold blood by Warlow.  Add to the fact that Bill was Billith the whole season, assuming godlike qualities and trying to save vampire kind after his tempestuous affair with Sookie, Jason had real anger issues.  First, he meets his fairy grandfather Niall and finds out that he was missed as far as the fairy genetic code.  Then, partially spurred on by his latent feelings for Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll), Jason goes upon storming Vamp Camp to save the vampires after Sarah Newlin has meaningless sex with him and then wigs out upon meeting his vampire ex-girlfriend.  He spares Sarah’s life after Eric makes mincemeat of Vamp Camp, so she’ll probably rear her ugly head again.  Violet claims him for hers while in Camp though, after Sarah throws him in with Female Gen Pop, so now he’s in a monogamous feed or be-fed to relationship with Violet and understands what drew Sookie into her past relationships with vampires.  It’s too bad Violet keeps teasing him with actual sex; in the meantime, he’s apparently gone down on her 178 days in a row.

Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer) – After drinking the remaining vial of Lillith’s blood in season 5, Bill assumes superior powers and Lillith’s earthly form.  He can walk in daylight, enter homes without being invited, and survive being staked through the heart.  He is charged with saving all vampires, which are threatened by Governor Burrell’s manufacture of Hepatitis V or Hep V, which he adds to newly minted bottles of TruBlood following the bombing of TruBlood factories nationwide.  Bill reasons that the only way to save vampires is to infuse their blood with fairy light.  First, he seeks the inventor of TruBlood to analyze a sample of fairy blood, which Bill takes from Andy Bellefleur’s quadruplet fairy daughters (by Claudette), while Sookie and Warlow hide in the fairy plane away from Billith’s sight (as Lillith made Warlow).  When that doesn’t work, Bill drinks the blood himself and demands that Sookie lead him to Warlow.  When Eric, upon Nora’s death from an injection of Hep V in Vamp Camp, gets there first, Bill storms upon Vamp Camp, fearful that his visions of seeing his vampire friends frying at the hands of the sun in a white room will come true.  In the end, he decides to allow his friends to feed on him; they inherit the fairy light and are able to walk around in daylight until Warlow meets his end by Niall.  Unfortunately, Bill’s sacrifice renders him normal Bill again, capable of dying the true death and also capable of feeling for Sookie again.

In the last, set-up half hour, he offers himself as Sookie’s protector, as millions of vampires nationwide have been infected with Hep V after drinking spoiled bottles of TruBlood, and as Bon Temps’ new mayor, Sam, proposes that humans make deals with healthy vampires to offer a mutual arrangement of food for the vampires and protection for the humans.  Sookie, however, wants nothing to do with Bill.

Jessica Hamby (Deborah Ann Woll) – First, Jessica freaks out that her maker, akin to her father, Bill is all Billith-ed.  When Bill and Jessica manage to lure Andy’s four fairy halfling daughters, including Adilyn, to the Compton manor for the purpose of taking their blood for researching protection for vampires, Jessica loses control while Bill threatens the inventor of TruBlood and eats three of the four daughters. Then, she is nabbed and taken into Vamp Camp, where she meets a handsome stranger vampire (James) that she is initially forced to have sex with for research – though he chivalrously declines, only to agree to have consensual private sex later.  Though Jason tries to save her and the others the best he can, Jessica hides with Tara and Pam in Female Gen Pop until Eric and eventually maker Bill liberate them.  Bill had tasked his progeny to tether his humanity; she successfully does so when he loses his Billith abilities and begins to feel something for Sookie again.  She also offers to Andy Bellefleur to be his and Adilyn’s protector without them having to provide her blood, though Andy nearly blows her head off over his latent grief for his other three daughters.

Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgard) – Eric does a very decent thing at the beginning of the season by relinquishing the deed to Sookie’s house back to Sookie.  In exchange for a more peaceful life, Sookie rescinds his invitation.  Eric is later joined by Nora, his sister by Godric, who informs him about Bill.  Eric discovers that Bill is more powerful than before and elects to steer clear of him while he and the other vampires consider their options.  Eric later does some reconnaissance at the Governor’s mansion, after the Governor orders all vampire-run businesses, such as Fangtasia, to be closed.  In leu of the Governor’s (and his mistress, Sarah Newlin’s) new anti-vampire initiatives, Eric lures the Governor’s daughter Willa into consenting to be made vampire, and we find out that Willa and Pam are the only two progeny Eric has every created in his 1000 years on earth.  Eric returns Willa to the Governor; Sarah, in her fervently biblical prejudice against vampires, convinces the Governor to throw Willa into Vamp Camp.  Tara and Pam are later nabbed and thrown into the Camp, and Eric takes it upon himself to get himself captured to save his progeny along with Nora, except that Nora is infected with Hep V while Eric watches.  Eric manages to break out of camp with Nora in tow and seeks help from Bill, who he acquiesces may now be a god.  Bill tries to save Nora with his blood, but eventually, Nora succumbs to the Hep V and dies the true death in a beset Eric’s arms.  Eric, livid and bent on vengeance, takes matters into his own hands; while Bill tries to convince Sookie to reveal Warlow’s location, Eric figures out that Warlow is hidden on the fairy plane.  He eventually breaks into the fairy world (I forget how), nearly drains Warlow to death, and breaks back into Vamp Camp, where he liberates the vampires until Bill eventually arrives and feeds them his own blood.  Once the Camp is liberated, Eric flies away.

In the last half hour, as Warlow dies, we see Eric, naked as a jaybird (hubba hubba) and sunning himself in the Alps during daytime.  He then catches fire as the effects of Warlow’s blood die with him.  So help me, he better not be dead!

Tara Thornton (Rutina Wesley) – Tara’s journey ends with most of the rest of the other vampires.  For her, it was about starting an impassioned relationship with her maker, Pam; defying grand sire Eric; and protecting Willa (her aunt?) in Vamp Camp.  She is liberated by Bill when he feeds her his fairy-infused blood and parties like its 1999 at Compton manor with the rest of the healthy vampires.

In the last half hour, her mother, Lettie Mae, finds her to apologize for how horribly she treated Tara as a child and offers to be sustenance to Tara, which Tara hesitantly accepts. It’s weird, and Tara is not gentle when she gnaws on her mother’s neck.

Lafayette Reynolds (Nelsan Ellis) – Lafayette was reduced to mere comic relief this season.  He serves as medium for Sookie when she tries summoning the spirits of her parents to ask about Warlow and channels Daddy Stackhouse’s spirit as the latter attempts to kill his daughter once more.  He also helps Arlene following the death of Terry Bellefleur and discovers the life insurance policy in the safe deposit box, the key to which Terry gives Lafayette before Terry dies.  Lafayette also helps Sam in the ongoing war between the werewolves and him over Emma, Luna’s daughter.

Sam Merlotte (Sam Trammell) – Sam begins the season in mourning, when Luna succumbs to the after effects of skinwalking and dies.  Sam then tries to protect Emma as the local werewolf pack, with Alcide as their new pack master, attempt to steal Emma away.  In the meantime, a group of idealistic youths, led by a woman named Nikki, try to convince Sam to come out of the supernatural closet as a shifter and end up getting caught in the fray between the werewolves and Sam.  Sam and Nikki and Emma then spend a majority of the season running from the werewolves, though not without Sam and Nikki striking up a relationship, including steamy shower sex and eventually Nikki becoming pregnant.  Alcide ultimately acquiesces and saves their lives, while Sam returns Emma to her grandmother.  Sookie also throws herself at Sam in the throes of her deeper sadness, and Sam gets understandably upset, given Sookie’s past tendency to favor vampires over him, indicating that he’s moved on with Nikki.

In the last half hour, we find out that Sam is the mayor of Bon Temps, has sold his bar to Arlene, and has proposed a crazy arrangement whereby healthy human citizens of Bon Temps and healthy, non Hep V infected vampires can agree to exchange blood for protection from legions of rabid, Hep V infected vampires roaming the countryside.

Alcide Herveux (Joe Mangianello) – Alcide begins the season as a bona fide dick, as he navigates what it means to be pack master.  He takes orders from Rikki, a she-wolf in his pack who latches onto whomever is in charge, apparently, and ignores advice from his deadbeat dad (Robert Patrick).  He spends the majority of the season hunting Sam down in order to reclaim Emma into the pack but ultimately decides that pack life is not for him and defects from the pack after they try to kill Nikki and her mother in retaliation for Nikki trying to “out” the rest of supernatural kind.  Alcide reunites with Sookie at Terry’s funeral, and they become a couple shortly thereafter.  He continues to distrust vampires, particularly BIll, who offers Sookie protection in the last half hour of the season.

Pam De Beaufort (Kristen Bauer van Straten) – Pam is mortified wh enthe Governor’s anti-vampire forces close down Fangtasia, which she takes much more personally than Eric. She also struggles with feelings for her progeny, Tara, and openly questions her maker when he turns Willa into a vampire. Pam is captured with Tara and Eric and is thrown into Vamp Camp.  While there, the resident psychologist forms an obsession with her; in exchange for information and eventually sex, he offers her fresh blood and agrees to transfer her from solitary confinement to Gen Pop.  There, she is able to watch Tara, Jessica, and Willa more closely, even as she is pitted against Eric in a fight where ultimately they turn the tables on snipers trained on them in the White Room (we also learn Pam can fly like Eric). When Eric liberates Vamp Camp along with Bill, Pam slaughters the psychologist and is high on the fairy blood she takes from Bill but watches as Eric inexplicably flies away.  At the end of the season finale, she informs Tara that she is going after Eric, at which point, Tara opines that Pam and Eric are “the worst fucking makers ever.”

Andy Bellefleur (Chris Bauer) – Andy was met with a surprise at the start of the season: four infant daughters, courtesy of his one night romp in the woods with Claudette the fairy.  Though Holly initially wants nothing to do with him for his indiscretion, she eventually warms up to him again after watching as Andy’s daughters age from babies to teenagers in two weeks, learn to read everyone’s minds, and rebel like teenager daughters do.  Things go awry when Bill and Jessica lure Andy’s offspring to the Compton mansion, whereupon Jessica, intoxicated by the effects fairy blood has on vampires, accidentally eats and kills three of them, leaving one, who asks to be called Adilyn, alive.  For the second half of the season, Andy counsels cousin-in-law Arlene after Terry passes away and helps save Sookie from Warlow when Adilyn wants to help Jason save his sister.   He also elects not to attend the mixer at Arlene’s bar (formerly Merlotte’s) in which Sam and Bill encourage vampires and humans to make arrangements for food and protection, though Jessica seeks him out to offer him and Adilyn protection without condition in an effort to atone for the deaths of Andy’s other daughters.

Terry and Arlene Bellefleur (Todd Lowe and Carrie Preston) – Terry is haunted by the death of his friend and the actions of the Ifrit at the end of season five, including his role in their deaths.  Though Arlene does her best to help him cope and to cover for him, Terry cannot shake the feelings of guilt and remorse he feels since he left the army, and so he calls upon another fellow soldier and former battalion buddy to kill him.  He takes out a life insurance policy worth three million dollars, which he places in a safe deposit box, the key of which he gives to Lafayette.  After a particularly bad episode of PTSD, Holly encourages Arlene to allow a vampire acquaintance of Holly’s to glamour Terry into forgetting all of the bad stuff that happened to him and because of him.  Terry is successfully glamoured, and for a short time, he seems happy and well adjusted; however, the glamour also produces the effect of Terry having forgotten about his friend, and one day, as he is taking out the trash in the back of Merlotte’s, Terry meets his end via gunshot to the back.  He dies in Arlene’s arms. RIP Terry.

Questions, Impressions, and Cliffhangers

1) IS ERIC ALIVE?  He better be.  I hope Pam finds him in time and saves him, since we didn’t see what happened to her when Warlow met his end.

2) Sookie and Alcide?  Really?  What was the point of the pack story?  Why do the writers expect us all to forget how horrible Alcide was this season?

3) Is Sookie really over Vampire Bill and Vampire Eric?  Will she never be with Sam?

4) I think Jason and Jessica are still sharing furtive glances and complicated emotions.  Are they over for good?  And what’s with this Violet vamp?  I don’t particularly want to watch Jason eating her out over a whole season.

5) They aren’t really going to belabor the Tara/Lettie Mae thing, I hope.

6) PLEASE GIVE LAFAYETTE MORE TO DO.  His one liners are great, but he is sorely underutilized.

7) Are Tara and Willa an item?  Willa really emphasized her ‘friendship’ with Tara to Lettie Mae.

8) Where did Fairy Grandfather Niall go?

9) RIP Warlow.  The actor who played you was damn fine.

10) Is Sam’s baby going to be a shifter?  Is Sam’s baby going to be born?

11) So, the new threat is the rabid, Hep-V infected vampires.  They now look like zombie vampires.  This could be very good or very bad.  Whatever else can be said, it’s not very original.

12) Arlene clearly kept the money.  Was there no investigation?  Terry purchased the policy three days before his death.  Not that I want to see the investigation onscreen.

PARTING SHOTS

True Blood is clearly on its last legs.  While the writers, with Creator Alan Ball stepping down to fulfill only an executive producer role, did well to focus the action on the vampires the most, there were still some superfluous, uninteresting plot lines and characters, particularly surrounding Alcide and Sam. Terry’s death, though sad and beautifully written and performed, was probably the right call, given that there was no where else to go with his character.  Steve Newlin also met his end this season; kind of a shame, really, since a gay vampire former evangelical was pure comedy gold.  Though the plethora of handsome men and naughtiness keeps the show interesting, I feel that True Blood maybe has one good season left before HBO and/or the show’s producers should call it quits.  It’s not like the show follows the Sookie Stackhouse novels at all anymore.  At this point, it’s about the quality of writing declining and the characters having no clear objective or arc to render them interesting.  Forwarding the end of the season finale six months in time and finding the characters in new positions (Bill even writes a bestseller about his time as Billith and travels the media circuit promoting it) may prove to inject new life into the show, almost like a reboot of the plot lines.  We’ll see how successful the transition actually is.

LOOKING AHEAD:

True Blood will return for Season 7 in June 2014.

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Discoveries: “The Tudors”

THE SPECS:

Who: The show is available for streaming on Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon (free streaming to Prime members).  I have not checked iTunes, but it is purchasable at Amazon and is, of course, on DVD and Blu Ray.

What: “The Tudors,” a historical drama covering the reign of King Henry VIII of England–beginning after he has been married for some time to first wife, Catherine of Aragon (and after the birth of his daughter, Mary I), and just as he meets soon-to-be mistress and second wife, Anne Boleyn–and ending with his death.

When: The show aired in its entirety from 2007-2010 on Showtime.

Where: The show is set in England during the reign of King Henry VIII (primarily the sixteenth century).

Why: Henry Cavill, who plays the Duke of Suffolk, Charles Brandon, long-time adviser and friend to the King, is the new Superman in the recently released film “Man of Steel.”  I had to check out his previous work.  Also, I am an Anglophile with a general interest in all things Britain, including its history.

How – as in How Was It?  I rated the show four out of five stars, as the writing was occasionally questionable, the historical inaccuracies were held secondary to dramatic effect, and as the performances of some of the cast of characters were uneven.  I gave it four stars because of the production values (the costuming and art direction are exquisite), the musical scoring, and the impassioned and charismatic performance of Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry.

SYNOPSIS

The span of the series follows King Henry VIII’s reign and marriages, as he begins to seek division from the papacy in Rome in order to declare his marriage to Catherine of Aragon (Maria Doyle Kennedy) null on the grounds that his conscience is plagued by guilt that he married his brother, Arthur’s, wife (he died before they consummated their marriage).  In reality, Henry becomes obsessed with the fact that he has no son to inherit the throne, and Catherine is unable to bear additional children, not that Henry appears to be game to try.  What’s more, and particularly as it is framed in this series, Henry is as much held in thrall by court politics as he makes them, and ambitious families, in particular the Boleyns, who seek greater wealth and prestige, machinate for eldest daughter Anne (Natalie Dormer) to court Henry’s affections, which she does successfully.  Henry, meanwhile, is enabled by conservative advisers, including his longtime friend, the Duke of Suffolk (Cavill), while questioned by others, including philosopher Thomas More (Jeremy Northam).

The first two seasons examine the beginning of the English Protestant Reformation as Henry declares himself head of the Church of England in opposition to the Pope, with Sam Neill playing the King’s chancellor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. The latter two seasons cover Henry’s remaining marriages to Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves (Joss Stone), Catherine Howard, and Catherine Parr (Joely Richardson); the changeable controversy surrounding the line of succession of his three children (Mary, Elizabeth I, and Edward VI); as well as the ongoing political, religious, and public health strife prevalent during his reign.

THOUGHTS

“The Tudors” is like a beautiful train wreck.  There are so many ways to pick this show apart, and yet, because Henry VIII’s court becomes a sexy soap opera of bed chamber Olympics and political cat-and-mouse antics around a truly egotistical king at the hands of the show’s producers, one can’t help but watch it all unfold.  To the writers’ credit, what “The Tudors” accurately teaches the viewer about history is that Henry VIII was a charismatic ruler who wielded too much power, often times at the whim of his own misplaced self-love.  Yet, as with all dramatic interpretations of actual events, the accuracy of the piece becomes a forgotten afterthought.

Probably the most laughable piece of made-for-television gloss-over is the fact that in all of the show’s four seasons, the king never becomes the bulbous tower of obesity that even his most stately portraits show of his latter years.  While Rhys Meyers infuses his portrayal of the king with a charisma that renders his Henry somewhat more sympathetic than the real life historical figure, this key piece of dramatic license undercuts much of the last season, particularly during the marriage of young Catherine Howard, the fifth wife and queen beheaded for adultery and licentious activities of her past.  There is no reason to believe, even in the silly hysterical youth characterizing Tamzin Merchant’s depiction of the character, that the young queen consort would so willingly take up with the King’s groom, considering that Henry still meets her in her bed chambers and showers her with lavish gifts; in real life, she was married too young to an old fat king (and his obesity was brought on, by all accounts, by the fact of his leg injury rendering him virtually immobile).  In the later seasons, Rhys Meyers does not even look like the portraiture of the actual king.

Chronologies are also toyed with, such that anyone with even a passing, Wikipedia-infused, scholarly interest in the Tudor dynasty might take offense. The death of the King’s illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy (season 1); the chronology of his sister’s death and the death of Cardinal Wolsey; the fact that Wolsey’s death is depicted as suicide (a plausible but largely debased theory); the prominence of the Duke of Suffolk in all regal matters (he wasn’t that involved); and so on. While the writers and the producers have the luxury of poor preservation of details over 500 years to make some guesswork of it, and while they were loyal to some of the most famous accounts, whether proven accurate or suspect, many of the facts are conveniently rearranged for the drama.  While such rearrangements are to be expected in any adaptation, they ring false when attached to the depiction of such a famous monarch and undercut suspension of disbelief during viewing of the entire series.

Nevertheless, “The Tudors” is compelling television, insofar as Rhys Meyers is the primary reason to watch.  He commits to his famous role with obvious zeal and a truly method immersion in the steeped and storied history of such a game-changing monarch.  He imbues his character with the pomp, audacity, and passion that this king must naturally have had, particularly in his lustful pursuits of wives to bear him sons.  None of the supporting characters or actors stand out as much as he does, including the highly attractive but disappointingly wooden Cavill, though Dormer’s portrayal of Anne Boleyn, the most interesting of all of Henry’s wives, arguably, is both layered and complex.  The layers and complexity are not, on their face, good qualities necessarily; she performed the role, as written, admirably, but the depiction of her family and her mixed motivations for pursuing the king, without much historical basis in fact, detract from sympathy for her, when she and Catherine of Aragon may have been the most sympathetic of all of Henry’s wives in how each were treated by him.  In fact, the most believable and, therefore, impressive performances of the six women who became queen were from Stone in her brief appearance as charming Anne of Cleves and Richardson as Catherine Parr, Henry’s most enduring wife (and the one who survived his death).  Parr’s role as a potential Protestant reformer, beyond Henry’s odd devotion to Catholic precepts in lieu of declaring himself head of the Church of England, and her subsequent need to negotiate her own survival in the face of actions of some of the king’s advisers, was flushed out in an interesting way.

The greatest success of The Tudors really stems from the production values – the use of locales, the art direction and set direction, the costuming (though some history buffs will no doubt pick apart the accuracy of some of the clothing), and the score.  The visual presentation of the Tudors was lush and filled with the opulence of royalty, from candlelit parties at court to pretty sitting rooms of queens and the bedchambers of the King. Even the French battlefields of the final season contained a certain picturesqueness.  The music underscoring it all infused emotional tones and heightened the drama when, perhaps, some of the performances were not equal to the task.

What the “The Tudors” did best, however, was tell the story, however loosely, of a famous king who did as he pleased.  He defied a powerful church, he asserted his absolute dominance over his realm, he married whomever he liked, he executed whomever he deemed necessary to execute, and he relied on advisers of varying frankness – some who met terrible ends when their services displeased their master and some who managed to dance a precarious dance around a whimsical ego.  Rhys Meyers also deftly showed how Henry aged from a young, lion-like monarch, filled with passion and lust, to an old, limping King who was forced to regularly face his weaknesses, much of which stemmed from his famous jousting injury, while betraying none of them.

“The Tudors” is a ultimately an interesting and watchable show – though perhaps not fairly named, considering that the only Tudor given full attention is Henry himself. It might have been more interesting to develop seasons based around the reigns of his children, particularly since the producers took such specific care to develop the character of Mary I, in the future known as “Bloody Mary.”  The program certainly captures and holds the attention, anyway, whether it is truly deserving of that attention or not.  Despite its obvious flaws, the show is still an entertaining piece of television that will engage the viewer and some viewers more than others.

RECOMMENDATION

This show is highly recommended to anyone interested in British history, historical fiction, or the Tudor dynasty–or sex, as the show regularly features nudity and sexual situations.  To lovers of the former, though, it is best that the viewing experience be taken with a grain of salt.  In addition, the show contains some strong language and some violence.  It would probably be rated “MA” for “Mature Audiences” on network television or “R” in the movie theaters.

Streaming Originals: “Orange is the New Black” on Netflix

THE SPECS:

Who: The show is available to Netflix subscribers exclusively, as it is Netflix produced original content.

What: “Orange is the New Black,” a comedy drama about a Manhattan woman whose past catches up to her and for which she must serve time in federal prison.

When: All 13 first season episodes became available for viewing on July 11, 2013.

Where: The show is set in New York, though flashbacks for each of the prisoners who comprise the cast of characters sometimes venture away from New York.

Why: I saw the teaser trailers for the series while watching other programming on Netflix and also on network TV.  I was originally drawn in by the fact that Kate Mulgrew, best known as Captain Kathryn Janeway from “Star Trek: Voyager,” plays a Russian prisoner and the “mama” of the motley cast of inmates.  I later discovered that Laura Prepon, aka Donna from “That ’70s Show,” is also a featured regular.

How – as in How Was It?  I rated the show four out of five stars, mainly because it is not the type of show to which I normally gravitate.  There are graphic situations, and the main character is potentially annoying in some circumstances.  Also, I’m not an overall fan of Jason Biggs, but, as you will read below, the show is so well-written, I still liked it very much.

SYNOPSIS

Taylor Schilling plays Piper Chapman, a seemingly run-of-the-mill woman and maker of homemade soaps who just became engaged to be married to Larry Bloom (Jason Biggs), her unemployed but wholly supportive writer boyfriend. Unfortunately, Piper learns that she must serve a short sentence in federal prison after she is implicated in the bust of an international drug cartel, of which her former girlfriend, Alex Vause (Prepon), was a member and who Piper aided and abetted.  Piper’s wild and adventurous past, including her ambiguous sexual orientation, becomes a secret revealed not only to Larry and his family but to her family as well.

What’s more, Piper finds, at first, that she is wholly unequipped for prison. Though some, like unabashed, self-proclaimed “lesbian junkie” Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne), are kind and helpful to her, others, like kitchen head Red (Mulgrew), show her no mercy, particularly after Piper accidentally criticizes the cooking.  In addition, the guards, all men, are mostly drunk on their own power (one nicknamed “Pornstache” is arguably misogynistic), the prison counselors play favorites and are easily offended, and the prison population is divided by race, unofficially but automatically, which offends Piper’s liberal sensibilities.  If all that weren’t complicated enough, Piper’s ex Alex is sent to the same prison, and Piper’s emotions are deeply conflicted, as she reasons that only Alex could have pointed the finger to get her in trouble in the first place, while at the same, the old attractions between the two women remain undeniably present.  In the meantime, Larry attempts to make the best of his temporary separation from Piper, though he is less than comfortable with the news that Piper and Alex are doing time together.

THOUGHTS

Orange is the New Black is a piercingly well-written show that is, in some ways, wholly unexpected in how riveting it actually is.  Created by the creator of Weeds, Jenji Kohan, this program is compellingly balanced in its storytelling, providing a richness of background and range of emotions for each character, even those expected to be the villains.  In truth, all of the characters, including Piper, are deeply flawed.  The show does not demand that the viewer sympathize with any one of the characters because they are prisoners or are employed within the state correctional system or are relatives or loved ones of either inmate or employee; the viewer is asked to see the characters as humans who have made human mistakes, some more terrible than others, whether they are serving time for these mistakes or not.  The show also carefully examines potential treatment that women inmates receive, particularly at the hands of male guards and authority figures, without suggesting that the whole system is broken (considering that a key power-holding figure in this story is also a woman).

Perhaps the most surprising element of this program is how deftly women of all types and categories are portrayed, with equal parts sensitivity and fairness. Piper is, of course, most likely bisexual but is not chastised for that reason; instead, she is examined as an individual who must confront the carefree and careless nature of her youth and its consequences on her present.  There is a transgender man to woman character named Sophia; her prison stay and the reason she is in prison is never fully flushed out or is at best hinted at, but what is certain is that her journey is depicted with unparalleled sensitivity to the struggles of transgender persons in general.  The show is also unafraid to tackle issues of gay versus straight, both in rights and in sexual relations; butch versus femme; black versus white; and the community constructs that are created to add routine and comfort in a decidedly non-routine and uncomfortable situation.

What’s more, each of the jailed women is provided segments of back story, compelling the viewer to watch to find out more, if only to deepen the overall understanding of each character and how she ended up in prison initially.  In some ways, Piper may be the least sympathetic of the imprisoned characters (in fact, internet commentary is predominantly against her) because her WASP-ish, well-to-do upbringing sets her apart from most of the other inmates and also makes her choices seem rebellious and even selfish at their core. And yet, in some ways – and as she comes to discover – Piper is no different than many of her fellow cons; her life and background, as well as her significant others’ inherent need to coddle her and to protect her in their similar but individualistic devoted manners, have not equipped her for the rougher edges of life, particularly federal prison.

The entire program is well performed by the ensemble cast.  Most often, the situations are played for laughs, but “Orange is the New Black” is not short of drama.  Every cast member is impressive to varying degrees but probably none more so than Mulgrew, who effects a convincing Russian accent and portrays a woman fixated, almost to a flaw, to a deep set of principles such that the viewer can’t help but wonder what may have compromised them to the point that she ended up in prison to begin with.  Schilling, as the lead character, also walks a fine line of love-her-or-hate-her bewilderment.  Piper is as sympathetic as she is frustrating, a trait wholly attained through Schilling’s nuanced performance of a woman struggling to find her place and identity in prison as much as she has done so in life.  Each of the actresses and actors offer well-rounded portrayals, though some are weaker than others, particularly Piper’s friend and business partner and “Pennsatuckey,” the Bible-toting, self-ascribed healer.

All of the supporting characters are interesting and compelling.  Also, the show has its fair share of steamy sex scenes, between various genders, which leave very little to the imagination.  This is both a caution to those offended by such depictions as it is a note to those who revel in them.

Where the show is at its finest, ultimately, though, is how deftly it tells each woman’s story, sometimes to heartbreaking effect. One of the women, Taystee, is released only to purposely violate her parole and find her way back to prison, after she finds that her release and her reentry into society is unsupported by the state, and when she finds that she has no one on the outside to help her reintegrate.  The key villain of the back seven episodes, Pennsatuckey, is the stereotypical “trailer trash” woman who sought five abortions, murdered an abortion nurse who offended her by suggesting that she get a “buy one, get the fifth free card,” only to be held up by the Christian right as a martyr for the Pro-Life movement because she kills a pro-abortion staff person.  Each woman’s story is filled with tragedy, irony, and heart; yet, again, the show is not seeking sympathy for any of the inmates, including Piper.  In the end, the story serves to remind the viewer that each character is human – and to err is ultimately human, even if the error warrants severe punishment.

“Orange is the New Black” is refreshingly enticing and pioneering programming that demands binge watching from beginning to end, which, thankfully, is aided by Netflix’s unique and novel way of introducing its original content.  For the first time, almost the entire ensemble cast, and certainly the primary heroines and victims, are female.  Not for the first time in general but, perhaps, for the first time without apology, the show explores issues of race, sexual orientation and identity, and issues that affect society as a whole but also each of us as individual members.  In fact, the reason that the show may be so compelling is that there is a character to be identified with for every viewer, some more so than others.  In any event, “Orange is the New Black” is the must-watch program of the summer and is worth a month’s worth of Netflix streaming to watch it.

RECOMMENDATION

This show is highly recommended in general but especially to anyone who is not offended by an unapologetic and no-holds-barred take on prison life and the issues that face a prison of all one gender.  It’s also recommended to Netflix subscribers, who have the only legal means to see it.  The show is gritty, graphic, contains strong language, some violence, nudity, and graphic sexual scenes.  It would probably be rated “MA” for “Mature Audiences” on network television or “R” in the movie theaters.

THE FUTURE OF THE SHOW:

Netflix has ordered a second season, tentatively planned for release in Spring 2014.