Orange is the New Black, Arrow, Orphan Black
Since I started "The History of Byzantium" podcast I've had a lot less time to watch new TV shows. So I was pleased a couple of days ago to have a block of time where I could watch the pilots of three shows that have been recommended to me by various people:
Orange is the New Black (Netflix)
This was quite promising. Another Netflix exclusive series like "House of Cards" and the resurrection of "Arrested Development." Made by Jenji Kohan who created "Weeds" the series follows Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), your average middle class girl who is sent to prison ten years after her crime. Her crime was to carry drug money for her girlfriend (Laura Prepon). She is now engaged to a guy (Jason Biggs) and heads into her new surroundings with all the anxiety you'd expect.
With flashbacks to help us piece together the story of her life and a real focus on emotions at every stage I found this highly engaging. The treatment of the women's prison seemed authentic, hinting at the horrors (and temptations) that it might offer without resorting to clichés. I find it rare to see good drama based around female characters and am looking forward to checking out the rest of the series (13 episodes).
Arrow (The CW)
I watched these in order so it was quite the tonal shift going from the emotional wrench of prison to the plastic world of The CW. I did find it distracting that everyone was so good looking and many of them in that bland way that Hollywood can create. Two young model types run a legal aid firm which was a little hard to buy.
I was a Marvel kid growing up so didn't know much about Arrow's story. It's similar to Bruce Wayne's and I think it's always hard on TV in one episode to give an emotional back-story for a super hero. As a result this felt cheesy and unconvincing. There were moments where star Stephen Amell looked particularly wooden and it was hard to tell if he was trying to underplay moments or if he just doesn't possess the range to express the change that his character has gone through.
I could have expected the pilot to be low on emotions but the action disappointed me too. Everything was too easy for the Arrow and there was no focus on his planning or emotion in overcoming great odds. Instead he pulled off such feats of audacity that it left little place for the show to go. I assume he will always be able to defeat anyone given what I saw here.
I would need to be convinced that the show offers more than I saw here to watch more.
Orphan Black (BBC America)
It's always dangerous to approach any piece of art with expectations. But Tatiana Maslany's recent "Best Actress" award from the Television Critic Association was hard to ignore. Sadly I found "Orphan Black" a big disappointment given that setup. The story is that Sarah Manning a "Brit" used to drug dealing and other scams to get by comes across a woman on a train platform who kills herself. The big surprise though is that the woman looks just like her. Sarah grabs the woman's purse, assumes her identity and we are up and running.
I actually felt by the end of the pilot like "Orphan Black" had done a pretty bad job with a wonderfully intriguing story. The explanation I just gave you is literally the first scene. We get so little time with Sarah that we have no particular reason to care about her or sympathise with her plight. The writers go for authenticity (admirably) once she assumes the dead woman's life and so her every confrontation with people who think she is the deceased is filled with confusion, misunderstanding and hasty exits. As realistic as that might be it made for poor television.
Sarah's British foster brother Felix is our only connection to the rest of her life and he is played everything for camp comedy to the point where I didn't believe the emotions when he finally got real with Sarah.
I don't want this to sound like a snobbish remark but the accent work was very distracting. It wasn't clear at all which country, let alone which city the series was set in. Maslany's English accent is fine but it's not distinct enough to fool a native speaker (her use of the word "cop" sounded bizarre given what I knew of her at that point). If those two were the only "Brits" amongst Americans then I would have gotten used to it, as people do with "Homeland" or "House." But the rest of the cast (mostly Canadian) are all playing Americans with a host of unconvincing accents. I don't know why the show needed to be set in the States (or indeed if it is) because it makes all the main actors sound like they are acting which is a major disruptment to their performances.
That brings me back to Maslany. At the end of the episode she is forced to use another accent, which I initially mistook the nationality of. I don't want to pick on her based on one episode but I struggled to see here the skills that won her the award. I clearly need to watch more and the premise is interesting but as a pilot it left me quite cold.
Robin (The TV Critic)