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orange is the new black, season two

I checked in on OITNB after we’d watched the first three episodes of the new season, and found the quality encouragingly up to the standards of Season One. Having finished the season, I’ll just say that I feel the same now as I did then. Since Jenji Kohan seems to have a good notion of what works best on the show, there isn’t a lot new here, just more of the same. But “the same” means “pretty good series”, so that’s a good thing.

I found Lorraine Toussaint’s Vee to be a good addition to the cast, although by season’s end I found her evil nature a bit too much. But Toussaint was always worth watching. The only other new character that comes to mind is Kimiko Glenn as Soso, a jabbering inmate that takes some getting used to, for the characters. She works as comic relief for the audience, until we get to know a bit more about her and quit laughing. Actually, that describes the character arcs of many of the people on the show … when we get to know them better (often via flashbacks), the surface first impression is replaced by something deeper. This works better with some characters than with others, but it rarely fails.

Again I’m repeating myself, but Orange Is the New Black does a terrific job showcasing a diverse cast. You’ll meet all kinds on this show, and they are well-served, although the “bad guys” are more cartoonish than they need to be.

I could note particular characters, but all it would be is a list of the actors I’ve especially enjoyed. So here’s a shout out to Uzo Aduba, my fave Natasha Lyonne, Yael Stone, Samira Wiley, Laverne Cox, Lea DeLaria, and the aforementioned Toussaint. Taylor Schilling gets a bit lost in all the fanfare for the big cast, but that’s unfair … she reveals Piper Chapman, the lead character in the series, gradually, and never goes for the easy route of being likable.

There is one thing hanging over the head of Orange Is the New Black, and that’s Weeds. Weeds was also Jenji Kohan’s work, and for three seasons it was delightfully off-center. Season Three ended in a manner that felt more like a series finale than a season finale, and to my taste, that’s where it should have ended. Instead, they used the finality of Season Three to reboot the series for Season Four, and it ended up running for eight seasons. I gave up somewhere along the way. I’m not sure why I think this might happen again, but I’m interested in seeing what happens in Season Four of OITNB, if it gets that far.

I will say this … I’ve never felt much connection between the two series. But the last scene of Season Two of Orange was very Weeds-like. Grade for Season Two: A-.

music friday: goulash

I’ve barely listened to any music the past ten days, so this is pretty haphazard. These are music videos recommended to me by YouTube.

Wild Flag, “Romance”:

The Beatles, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”:

Sly and the Family Stone, “Hot Fun in the Summertime”:

Faces, “Stay With Me”:

Miranda Lambert, “Somethin’ Bad”:

Muddy Waters, “I’m a King Bee”:

where has he been, lately?

“What are you thinking about?”, she asks.

At this point I lie. I wasn’t thinking about Martin Amis or Gérard Depardieu or the Labour Party at all. But then, obsessives have no choice; they have to lie on occasions like this. If we told the truth every time, then we would be unable to maintain relationships with anyone from the real world. We would be left to rot with our Arsenal programmes or our collection of original blue-label Stax records or our King Charles spaniels, and our two-minute daydreams would become longer and longer and longer until we lost our jobs and stopped bathing and shaving and eating, and we would lie on the floor in our own filth rewinding the video again and again in an attempt to memorise by heart the whole of the commentary, including David Pleat’s expert analysis, for the night of 26th of May 1989. (You think I had to look the date up? Ha!) The truth is this: for alarmingly large chunks of an average day, I am a moron. …

None of this is thought, in the proper sense of the word. There is no analysis, or self-awareness, or mental rigour going on at all, because obsessives are denied any kind of perspective on their own passion.

-- Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch

true blood, last season premiere

I’ve always thought of True Blood as a Showtime series that happened to end up on HBO. It’s a guilty pleasure if you believe in those things, full of sex and violence and both of them combined, and vampires, and werewolves and god knows what all else. It’s got Oscar-winning Little Anna Paquin running around nekkid, and cast that has grown so enormous over the course of seven seasons that there is no way you can remember who they all are. In other words, it’s a lot like Penny Dreadful, which also runs on Sunday nights and has sex and violence and a combination of the two, and vampires and god knows what all else. It’s got Eva Green running around nekkid, although she’s never won an Oscar. And it’s on Showtime, where I expect to find such series.

True Blood took care of business in the first scene of the new season. A pack of vampires with Hep-V (don’t ask) turn up at a town BBQ and eat half the population. There’s lots of blood, and one of the main regular characters is killed. All in the first couple of minutes. The rest of the episode has Nekkid Anna Paquin, and human/vampire sex, and lots of consensual vamp/human blood drinking, and a couple of new characters we’ve never seen before. (Or maybe we have … I can’t keep track, plus there’s one character we’ve seen before but now he’s played by a different actor.)

I suppose it’s all fun in a Walking Dead kind of way. I never thought much of the attempt to make the series into a metaphor about LGBT rights … I mean, it’s there, sometimes it hits you over the head, but really, people didn’t watch True Blood to see a clever representation of homophobic America, they watched it because Anna Paquin and Alexander Skarsgård and Joe Manganiello and Lizzy Caplan and Sam Trammell and Ryan Kwanten got nekkid and had lots of human/beast sex, interspersed with scenes of vampires drinking blood.

In other words, it was right up my alley. But after a couple of seasons, they had to stretch, and here came the bazillion characters, and faeries and maenads and of course there has to be a part for Fiona Shaw as the head of a Wiccan cult. It got increasingly silly, until it really was like a Showtime series … you know, it ran a few seasons too long.

Yet here I am, ready to watch until the finish. I jumped ship on Dexter, I jumped ship on Weeds, but apparently I’m going to follow Little Anna Paquin all the way. Grade for Season 7 premiere: C+.

orphan black, season two finale

It wouldn’t seem possible that Tatiana Maslany could be any better than she was in Season One, but I think it happened. The main thing is, we know the various clones and their personalities much better now, know their similarities and differences, and this shines the light even brighter on what Maslany pulls off. I was reading an interview with her where she talked about the various characters, and it was fascinating how as I read I forgot that the same actor was playing every clone. Talking about the great dance scene where four clones show up, Maslany said, “It’s a big combination for me, but I have to say all those scenes were so awesome. I was so excited to read them because there was nothing about them that was plot driven. They were just the characters, the sisters reunited and meeting Helena for the first time. And that was so much fun to play with as an actor. Regardless of the technical things, when you have that lovely scene work to play it just kind of takes care of itself.”

As she described the sisters meeting Helena, I recalled that moment, which was very touching, and I realized that she described exactly what I saw: three sisters meeting a fourth. At those moments, Maslany moves far beyond the parlor trick of playing multiple characters. It’s as if the characters are playing her. When Helena shows up, the scene has an emotional wallop because she is new to some of the sisters. And as a viewer, you don’t think “duh, they’re all Tatiana Maslany, of course they’ve met”. Instead, you get swallowed up in the coming together of separate characters.

Season Two demonstrated that there is a limit, if not to Maslany’s brilliance than at least to the makeup department’s abilities. Tony, the transgender clone, didn’t work … he looked like Tatiana Maslany with a fake beard. The other clones don’t instantly remind you of the actor … Sarah, Cosima, Alison, Helena, and Rachel are different people. Partly this is the makeup folks doing great work: Cosima’s dreads, Helena’s great blond mane, Rachel’s perfectly tailored look. Maslany makes them real, of course, but even she couldn’t make Tony believable.

Alan Sepinwall targeted what was the biggest problem for me in Season Two: while the various Maslany-clones retained their unique qualities, the plot(s) got so complicated I lost track of who was trying to do what. There may be some consistency in the various characters’ actions, but oftentimes I couldn’t follow them, and this bothered me. I’d be inclined to pass this off as my own tendencies to get confused at these things, but then I saw Sepinwall saying similar things: “[T]he story kept looping back in on itself until it was utter gibberish. I lost all track of who was on which side, the exact agenda of any faction within or without the Dyad Institute, and the show turned into a collection of trap doors for the clones and/or the audience to fall through as every non-clone character (save Felix and Art) kept switching allegiances.”

This is far from a deal-breaker … I have a hard time imagining ever getting tired of watching Maslany in this series. But the more I get lost in narrative problems, the more Orphan Black becomes a one-trick pony to me. OK, it’s more like a five-trick pony, but it would be nice if Orphan Black the series kept up with Tatiana Maslany the Should Win an Emmy actor.

Meanwhile, the dance party was arguably the greatest scene yet involving whatever tricks they do to work all of the clones into the same scene.. But my favorite moment of the finale was brief, when Helena was asked if she had burned down the ranch. The look on her face as she said “no” was perfect. A tip of the cap to “GIMMI-SAGAN-OM-DRAKEN” for this great gif:

Grade for Season Two: A-.


I think the U.S. players believe that they will win. They will play to their abilities. They won’t be overawed. It is rare that a soccer match can be controlled by one player … team play is crucial. And Portugal will not be at 100%, due to injuries and suspensions.

And yet … Iran earned a well-deserved upset draw with Argentina, except Leo Messi pull a bit of magic out of his boots. If there is one other player who can “do a Messi” in that way, it’s Cristiano Ronaldo. If Ronaldo is fit, the U.S. is in trouble. They can have a good tactical plan to deal with him … he can have what passes for a bad game by his standards … but if he’s fit, I think Portugal will win.

But that’s a big if.

It’s fun to be an American fan at times like this, thanks in part to those casual fans who only turn up every four years. Those fans diss soccer on a regular basis. They also understand that the USA is not among the elite. But come the World Cup, and everyone becomes a fan. Because they don’t pay attention for the most part, they don’t really know what “not among the elite” means. Like the players, they are fearless, and actually believe the U.S. will win, at least as each match approaches … I don’t know if even the most loony fair-weather fan thinks the U.S. can win it all. They know Ronaldo is tops, but they think Clint Dempsey is only slightly inferior. When the U.S. wins at the World Cup, people go bonkers. And in the buildup, they think of beating Portugal in 2002, about Landon Donovan against Algeria, about Rapinoe-to-Wambach against Brazil. They don’t think of those World Cups where the U.S. craps out.

Thus, it makes sense that American fans have adopted “I believe that we will win” as their battle cry.

Of course, when the U.S. is eliminated (and that could be sooner rather than later … it’s not out of the realm of possibility that they lose to both Portugal and Germany), those casual fans will forget about soccer again until 2018.

My prediction: if Ronaldo is hampered, the U.S. wins, 1-0. If Ronaldo is fine, the U.S. loses, 2-1.

world cup 2014 so far

(Here's an example of what you can find on my World Cup blog.)

So, how are we doing so far?

A week-and-a-half ago, I posted my lame-but-clear “template for a good soccer match”. Once again, the rules:

  1. The margin of victory is one goal, or the match is a draw
  2. At least one of the teams must score multiple goals

I’m searching for matches that were competitive (rule #1), and attack-minded (rule #2).

The 7th match was the first to meet the criteria: England 1-2 Italy. There were 30 total shots (13 on goal), some inspired individual play (Pirlo, Balotelli), and if England never quite seemed like they had an equalizer in them, it wasn’t for lack of trying. On the same day, the Ivory Coast defeated Japan 2-1, in a match that was more lopsided than the score suggests.

Sunday the 15th had two more: Switzerland 2-1 Ecuador, and Argentina 2-1 Bosnia-Herzegovina. The first was headed to a 1-1 draw until the thrilling extra-time winner by substitute Hans Seferovic, a case where the ending made the match seem a bit better than it was. Argentina-Bosnia was also saved by a goal, Lionel Messi’s sublime effort to put Argentina up 2-0 midway through the second half. Bosnia got a late goal to “fulfill” the template, and Messi’s wondergoal made the match memorable, but again, this one was not as competitive as the final score indicates.

Monday the 16th had one, which delighted U.S. fans: Ghana 1-2 United States. I can’t judge the entertainment value, since I had a rooting interest, but Ghana’s put so much pressure on the U.S. after Dempsey’s instant goal that there was a level of tension throughout the match, with everyone wondering if/when Ghana would break through. Which they did, with less than ten minutes to go. Which set up a classic finish four minutes later, when John Anthony Brooks headed home the game-winner.

Tuesday the 17th, Belgium 2-1 Algeria. Not a great match most of the way … Algeria only got off three shots, and their goal came from a penalty kick. Belgium dominated without actually being interesting, until Marc Wilmots made three substitutions in the early parts of the second half. Two of those substitutes scored goals, and Belgium got the win they deserved. But it was odd … Belgium clearly outplayed the Algerians, yet until the last 20 minutes, didn’t seem very potent.

Wednesday the 18th, and the real winner of the Template of the Cup thus far: Australia 2-3 Netherlands. The heavy underdogs Australia stayed with the Dutch for most of the match, even taking a brief 2-1 lead early in the second half. There were 43 total fouls (remarkably, only two by Nigel de Jong), it was a tough match, lots of give and take, and the best team won. But it was a five-goal extravaganza.

Thursday the 19th had two: Colombia 2-1 Ivory Coast, and Uruguay 2-1 England. All three goals in the first match came in a nine-minute period midway through the second half. Uruguay-England was one of the best matches so far, with a lot of the excitement being contextual … it wasn’t just entertaining, it featured Luis Suárez in his first match of the Cup, scoring twice in an emotional performance against the English.

Finally, on the 20th, there was Honduras 1-2 Ecuador. The stat sheet shows some interesting individual performances. Carlos Costly scored the Honduras goal, and also led all Hondurans in committing five fouls. Enner Valencia scored both Ecuador goals, was fouled five times, and returned the favor three times. (Fouls are usually part of the discussion in a match that includes Honduras.)

That’s ten matches already that fit the template. But other matches, while not fitting the straightjacket I’ve chosen, were “good”, usually by featuring one team in a delightful blow out of their opponent. The Netherlands scored five against defending champions Spain, Germany plowed past Portugal 4-0, France got five against the Swiss.

And, as if to demonstrate the silliness of my template, arguably the best match so far was the scoreless draw between Brazil and Mexico.

Against all of the above, Iran-Nigeria and Japan-Greece were more typical 0-0 matches, i.e. boring, and other matches were merely OK. It’s worth noting, though, that “merely OK” would have been quite good in the 2010 World Cup.

So far, this has been an excellent World Cup. Partly because teams are scoring goals, and I like goals. But there are also fine individual exploits, and again, Brazil 0-0 Mexico was a terrific match to watch.

fargo, season one finale

Fargo the TV series was what a Coen Brothers movie would be like if the Coen Brothers weren’t actually involved. Series creator Noah Hawley took a certain tone from the movie Fargo, and wasn’t shy about working other Coen angles into the show. But his series wasn’t a sequel to the movie, or a remake, and while it had one (or more?) specific connections to the film, for the most part, it existed in its own space, and you could enjoy it without knowing the movie.

To which one might ask, why bother? Why not just create a world from scratch? I’d say Fargo the movie had room for more than just the central plot and characters that carried it. The TV series played with our expectations, but it always had its own place, one which I found compelling for the duration of its ten-episode run.

I’ve always been on the fence about the Coens, but Fargo is my favorite of their movies, so I welcomed a new look at that environment. Fargo (the series) confounded lots of expectations, not just for fans of the movie. It had bad guys … it had seemingly nice guys who turned bad, which is a fairly common theme in modern TV … but it wasn’t really about the bad guys, it was about the good guys, who weren’t all good, but who operated from a place of decency that separated them from the usual anti-heroes of today. Front and center was Molly Solverson, the closest thing in the series to Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson. Molly was a perfect example, though, of how the show borrowed from the movie, but made something of its own, for she wasn’t a copy of Marge, she was a character separate from what came before. Molly was played by Allison Tolman, the breakout star of the show … Tolman had done very little acting prior to Fargo, as best as I can tell she did comedy podcasts, but she is as perfect as Molly as McDormand was as Marge. She is the heart of the show, and pretty much the brains of the show, as well.

As is usual for the best TV series these days, there is plenty of fine acting throughout. Billy Bob Thornton had the showiest role as a mysterious hit man, and Martin Freeman got a chance to chew some scenery. That played well against the more deadpan performances of people like Adam Goldberg, or the gentle excellence of Keith Carradine as Molly’s dad (when did he become so incapable of giving a bad performance?).

The resolution of the various narrative threads in the final episode was satisfying enough, although I’m not surprised to read critics who had problems with this or that angle. It wasn’t a perfect ending, and I don’t know that it would hold up to focused examination. But you realized by the end that Fargo fit the cliché of something that was as much about the journey as about the destination. It was quirky, it was funny, its violence often came in through the side door when you were looking at the front … you never knew what was next, and that was part of the fun.

I wouldn’t call it a great series, although Tolman needs to get more attention, she was great all on her own. At times, it was too proud of itself in the manner of a Coen Brothers movie, and outside of Molly and her dad, there weren’t a lot of recognizable humans … they were “humans”, if the scare quotes make sense. But for a project that could have easily stunk, Fargo was a pleasant surprise. Grade for first (only?) season: A-.