The GLOW of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK: Why Jenji Kohan just had her best TV month ever

***THERE WILL BE SPOILERS FOR OITNB AND GLOW***

June, 2017.

The month kicked off with the long-awaited, cliffhanger-resolving fifth season of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, and concluded with the debut of the fantastic new show about 80s women’s wrestling in L.A., GLOW. What did two of the greatest seasons of TV this year so far have in common, apart from absolutely kick-ass female ensemble casts? Executive producer/showrunner Jenji Kohan.

Jenji Kohan

Kohan, courtesy of THR

OITNB ended on a mother of a cliffhanger last year, with a frantic, uncertain Daya aiming Humphrey’s gun at his head.

OITNB Daya

Kohan and her writers made a bold and brilliant choice for this new season: the show picked up at that exact moment, and the entire season took place over three days. This gave the show a freshness and immediacy that kept adrenaline and interest levels skyrocketing as we followed the evolution of the riot. It allowed for some seriously deep dives into all of the characters. We also got whole new levels to relationships, some unlikely bonds, and even a marriage proposal. The danger and threat level remained absolute throughout, although the show still managed to weave in its signature laughs and sadness. Taystee in particular got some insanely powerful moments, proving that Danielle Brooks is the MVP not just of this show, but also TV, acting, and life. No doubt.

OITNB Taystee

The end result was that the writing was tighter, more precise; the characters more nuanced; the actors had more freedom and opportunity to truly go there with their performances. It was a thrilling and emotionally exhausting ride, the best season of the show yet, which closed with the best episode (with the best use of music in the show to date), and, yes, an even bigger cliffhanger than last year.

OITNB S5 ending

What a start to the month for Kohan.

But she wasn’t done. Nope. Not even close, baby! Because one awesome and extraordinary cast of magnificent women per month just isn’t enough. Enter, GLOW.

GLOW cast

Created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch (playwrights who between them have worked on Nurse Jackie, Homeland and OITNB), this is a modern take on the 80s cult classic show of the same name (Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling), albeit one still beautifully grounded in its gritty 80s setting. It’s still colorful, but it’s the dirty underside of the day-glo. The sets are grimy and unglamorous, the performances are grounded and nuanced, and the song choices for the soundtrack are always a zig where you expect a zag—no one could have foreseen that one of the best moments of the series would be set to a song from the original Transformers cartoon movie, “Dare” by Stan Bush (and Rocky IV training montage composer Vince DiCola for maximum 80s!).

GLOW Ep 7 Transformers

The amazing “Transformers” sequence in the amazing episode 7 of the amazing GLOW

The show foregrounds the desperation, neediness, hurt, and all the other messy emotions of its protagonists. It’s real, in other words. Painfully so, sometimes, and that’s one of the keys to why it works so damn well. The writers on this show—including Rachel Shukart, Nick Jones and Sascha Rothchild—do an expert job of contrasting the moments of emotional sweetness and uplift with the exposed wiring of the human heart (not literally, this isn’t GAME OF THRONES).

One of the main reasons for GLOW’s awesomeness, though, is its glorious cast of incredible actresses. This is a show that is not afraid to foreground its women and take ferocious aim at the gender discrepancy in Hollywood (and, like, the world). The show focuses on struggling actress Ruth, who is played to revelatory perfection by the always great but never better Alison Brie in what is, inexplicably, her first real leading role. Hopefully this pushes her into the acting stratosphere she deserves—incredibly, she had to audition multiple times for what should’ve been the easiest casting decision of all time (yes yes, I know casting is a truly complicated puzzle in many dimensions that needs to be completed *exactly* right or the whole thing falls apart… I absolutely know this… but c’mon… it’s Ali Brie!)…

GLOW Brie

GLOW opens with Brie’s Ruth giving her all in an audition for a female role that is nothing compared to the male role. This sets the tone perfectly: These women have a struggle on their hands. They have to fight, and fight hard, for something that is only in the vicinity of what they really want. Ruth is a great character to drive a show like this. Her neediness and desperation and unflinching desire to transcend her circumstances are powerful engines that keep the story rolling.

GLOW Ruth car

This is one of Ruth’s more glamorous moments in the show

Brie’s performance is fearless and unflinching. But this isn’t a one-woman show. There are fourteen amazing women on screen, and any one of them could be the lead, because the writers have made each of them so fully grounded and realized, and because the performances are all so vulnerable and magnetic and empathetic and funny and raw. I could write an essay on each of them, but suffice it to say, they all get arcs and standout moments, and every single actress here KILLS IT AT ALL TIMES.

The combination of breathtaking performances and killer writing forms a shield against conventional wisdom and stereotypes. Very early on, we find out that Ruth has slept with her best friend’s husband. Most shows would label her the villain and give her the one dimensionality of a selfish ‘slut’. And she wouldn’t be a leading character in those shows. Instead, GLOW artfully reveals the emotional complexity at play, and keeps Ruth highly relatable. In short, they do what seems to be so hard for many shows (and movies): they make her a complex person. They also give her an equally complex nemesis in the form of her former best friend, Debbie, AKA Liberty Belle. Betty Gilpin gives an affecting and powerhouse performance that provides a searing counterpart to Brie’s drifting Ruth.

GLOW Debbie

Gilpin, owning it as Debbie

There are men of course, most primary of which are WTF podcaster Marc Maron, and former Veronica Mars star (Team Piz!) Chris Lowell. Maron excels as the seedy yet principled, abrasive yet vulnerable director of the show within the show, and Lowell delivers comedy gold as the moneyed producer of the whole thing. Both stand out, which is impressive considering they are surrounded by fourteen of the finest actresses on TV right now.

GLOW robot

Maron, Lowell, and a robot. It’s the 80s.

In short, GLOW is perfect, we need season 2, and we must bow down to Kohan and her writing teams for bringing forth two such complex and mighty female ensemble shows, in the same month, no less.

Let’s be honest: The world needs more powerhouse female ensembles, both in TV shows & movies, and in front of & behind the camera. They’re good for everyone: Great actresses want to work with other great actresses, we all want to watch amazing performances and extraordinary characters and relationships, and TV outlets need the immense ratings that ensue. Everyone wins.

We need more. Let’s make it happen, Hollywood.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Bunnies, jumpsuits and clones: TV’s ongoing golden age, 2013 edition

It’s interesting that three of of the greatest seasons of TV in 2013 were all debut shows, two of which came from non-traditional sources.

While Masters Of Sex, a richly nuanced telling of William Masters and Virginia Johnson’s pioneering 1950s sex study, is as burnished and high-quality as you would expect from Showtime, the other two shows came from a DVD rental shop and a cable network not known for original programming. Orange Is The New Black (privileged white girl gets sent to prison for transgressions in her younger life) was a breakout hit for Netflix, while Orphan Black (a twenty-something mother trying to get her child back discovers she has multiple clones) was a phenomenal success for BBC America. They tell very varied stories, but they all share a key quality: an immersive, kinetic, almost urgent sense of emotional turmoil and evolution.

Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan

Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan

Masters Of Sex, from showrunner Michelle Ashford, has a beautiful, gleaming quality reminiscent of Robert Redford’s Quiz Show. It’s shot and directed in a gloriously low-key yet detailed manner that still finds time to be transcendently visual. Even though it focuses on a groundbreaking study about people having sex, it’s really about the journeys that Masters and Johnson go on, which requires many conversations about methodology, belief systems and statistics. Ashford’s genius is making this an incredibly dynamic and fascinating show, scene after scene, episode after episode. It dives deep into its characters, and elevates their struggles to a mythic level, even as it grounds them in the most fundamental of human needs and desires. Lest that sound too weighty, it’s a very funny show, shot through with a dry, sly wit that emerges not just in dialogue, but also visually (the greatest visual moment of television in 2013 may well have been the sight of a post-coital male rabbit collapsing into sleep the second it, uh, “finishes”).

Coitus not pictured

Coitus not pictured

The writing is always smart, the acting is revelatory across the board, and it all looks amazing.

Taylor Schilling

Taylor Schilling

Orange Is The New Black is a deliberately scrappier affair, as befits the chaotic nature of its subject matter. Piper is a WASP-y character who ran wild during her early twenties, carrying out all kinds of illicit and illegal activities at the behest of her girlfriend and lover, Alex. Eventually, Piper gave it all up, and got engaged to NPR-worshipping, brunch-loving Larry. Years later, Piper’s name is given to the authorities, and she is arrested for her crimes, and sent to prison. What follows is Piper’s fraught, emotionally charged journey through prison life. It’s upsetting, terrifying, moving, hilarious and horrifying in equal parts, and never less than utterly gripping. Showrunner Jenji Kohan nails the tone of the show, keeping every episode flying with emotional energy, humor and conflict. It’s a natural fit for Netflix, as it is literally impossible to resist binge-watching this show. The prison is full of vastly different women, all of whom have their own pasts and arcs; it’s a rich and diverse source of stories, all fueled by human beings on the edge, desperate to survive, to make it through, to make it out.

Tatiana Maslany

Tatiana Maslany

Masters Of Sex and Orange Is The New Black deal in realism. Orphan Black, developed by Graeme Manson, has different DNA; it’s a sci-fi thriller with a bleakly beautiful contemporary feel. Very quickly, lead character Sarah Manning discovers that she is not alone; there are young women out there just like her. Not just demographically, but literally: there are identical clones running around and bringing the ruckus (including, notably, a terrifyingly feral assassin clone, although even she is somehow overshadowed by the antics of the soccer mom). The show unfolds its techno-thriller plot with the verve and emotion of Fringe, and the relentless grip of Homeland. The conspiracy widens and the truth evolves. These fantastical elements are grounded in some jaw-dropping performances. The two leads, Felix (played by Dylan Bruce) and Sarah (played by Tatiana Maslany) are originally from Brixton, in the south of London. This is one of the most specific British accents there is; Bruce and Maslany are both Canadian, but both deliver flawlessly authentic and thrillingly naturalistic performances. But it doesn’t stop there, because Maslany also plays the clones, all of whom are wildly different, in character and mannerisms. It’s an acting showcase and masterclass that weaves breathlessly around the ferociously unfolding plot. It’s highly engaging, and never lets up for a second.

Three brilliant seasons, three brilliant shows.

There were many other great seasons of TV in 2013 too: Almost Human, The Walking Dead, Person Of Interest, Arrow, Nashville, The Tomorrow People, The Blacklist, Shameless, Game Of Thrones (which delivered the year’s most talked about episode of TV, the Rains of Castamere), Homeland (which seemed to nosedive for three episodes before revealing that it was in fact its most ruthlessly brilliant season yet),  as well as the UK hit The Wrong Mans, a brilliantly off-kilter and kinetic “action sitcom” about being an ordinary man caught up in a Bourne-style conspiracy.

Special shout out: the fifth and final season of SouthLAnd, one of the greatest TV dramas of all time, which inexplicably received the worst DVD handling of any TV show in history (barely getting a release, appearing as “DVD on demand”, then bundling odd groups of seasons of the show together, never once releasing a prestige blu ray set, even getting its theme music replaced on some DVDs and digital downloads). The lack of options undoubtedly held back its ratings (binge-watching catch-ups are a key part of keeping shows alive in later seasons), and although the show ended on a typically intense and emotional high, it’s a shame it isn’t easier for fans or newbies to own it in a quality format.

All these shows featured compelling characters, gripping emotional journeys, killer banter, and dynamic pacing. TV is going through a continuing golden age that only seems to deepen as shows start emerging from unexpected venues. There are more channels greenlighting more shows year-round, instead of the usual handful during the more typical pilot season. Now fantastic shows are constantly springing up and demanding great acting and writing talent. It’s an astonishingly fertile, lively, beautiful time for television drama. It’s hell on my DVR and my writing schedule.

Long may it continue.