Wentworth Gets Real

Wentworth Gets Real

This article was previously published on Indiewire

Imagine a world where none of the rules apply. Justice is delivered via steam press, morality determined by motive, babies and inmates cohabit. That is the world of “Wentworth,” the Australian prison-drama — available on Netflix — stepping up to fill the Litchfield-sized void left after binge-watching “Orange is the New Black.”

On the surface, the similarities between “Orange” and “Wentworth” run deep. Both shows are set in a women’s prison, feature a tough brunette lesbian, a pregnant inmate, smuggling schemes, mother and daughter inmates, a character nicknamed Red, a transgender inmate, and a diverse cast, among other things.

“Wentworth” differs in its portrayal of female inmates and femininity, amplifying the many kinds of female badassery. Where “Orange” shows us that hope can linger despite incarceration, “Wentworth” is a far darker depiction of cynicism masked as realism. Both shows grapple with the ideas of motherhood, circumstances, and the search for purpose. However, the optimism of “Orange” is lost on “Wentworth’s” delineation of what happens when the search for meaning weighs down on a psyche.

For a show populated by women, “Wentworth” is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. It’s gripping, graphic and savage. Women on television are seldom portrayed as violent; mostly billed as tame and maternal, or bitter and bitchy. The women in “Wentworth” are manipulative and vindictive , sometimes to the point of sociopathy. A surge of power is usually accompanied by a breakdown. There is a constant struggle between brutal emotionlessness and compassionate humanity within their prison-addled consciences and warped ethics.

The dedication to vivid storytelling is amplified through the fights, murders, plays for “top dog”, overdoses, blood, vomit, flesh-burning, and other cruel forms of punishment. It’s all shown in pornographic detail. “Wentworth” may have dance parties and close friendships, but there are also hands being smashed by machine weights and stabbings in the shower.

These women challenge every notion of the way women “should” look and act. “Wentworth” delivers a powerful feminist message. This is not a pedantic characterization of women as tameable victims. No one is apologizing for their actions and it is acknowledged that actions cannot be undone. The on-going power struggle is a highly intelligent game, wherein every move is an active, thought-out decision and every takedown is calculated.

“Wentworth” is mainly the story of Bea Smith (Danielle Cormack), a domestically-abused wife who tries to kill her husband by choking his lungs with carbon monoxide, but changes her mind at the last minute. The series follows the meek and broken-down Bea as she tries to survive — inevitably forced to step into an entirely new persona. The only choice in prison is to survive, at any cost. It would be easy to position Bea’s transformation as a corruption, but the irreverent Bea is much more respectable than the once-shaky housewife. Sometimes the lamb has to become the lion in wolf’s clothing.

Read more on Indiewire.com


Where Art Meets Competition

Where Art Meets Competition

This article was previously published on The Silhouette

The relationship between film and TV is pretty complicated. It’s like that cousin you don’t really get along with but who shares same family members and goes to the same school and has the same friends.

There has always been this overarching need to establish film as an unchanging, cultural phenomenon, even though it doesn’t reflect the cultural or political state of the world. On the television side, there’s a rush to define every decade since the development on TV as the “Golden Age,” or even the “Second Golden Age.”

Don’t get me wrong, this is the Golden Age of television. The Sopranos and The Wire changed the way we watch television completely now, and in the future. Tony Soprano was television’s first unlikeable protagonist, the anti-hero. Of course, a popular phenomenon repurposed into shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and in my opinion, Shameless and The Good Wife as well. In a way that film hasn’t yet grasped, television borrows techniques, styles, and archetypes from other shows but does so with an originality that inevitably results in success. Television is just getting smarter, with shows like FOX’s breakthrough hit Empire and CW’s latina comedy Jane the Virgin proving so.

Television is each piece as a whole while film is the entire whole. To me, film recognizes the art of cinematography in a way that television lacks, and allows you to appreciate the small details that are picked from a concise story. Television is real time—it feels like it’s happening to you. A year is really a year, Christmas is really Christmas; film takes you to the past and future simultaneously, but it never feels present. This isn’t a bad thing; in fact, it’s what makes film so successful as a tool for escapism.

Film is coming off a fantastic year, although some would disagree and the lack of inclusivity was a definite downfall. Last year biopics like The Theory of Everything showed us the details behind prominent figures with a little bit of creative license, with sharp satires like Chris Rock’s Top Five aiming to make social commentary hilarious, and well-written comedies like 22 Jump Street proving that blockbuster comedies could still be funny.

The films that premiered at the 2015 Sundance Festival in January make me excited to love film again. The talent that occupied Park City, UT for the week-long festival lent a hand to making 2015-2016 an unreal film season. Intricate stories, beautiful cinematography, established characters—all the necessities for film to appeal to the public again. That, and social consciousness and intersectionality. Even though 35 percent of films at this year’s Sundance were directed by women, Sundance Institute still recruted Kristin Wiig, Mindy Kaling, Lena Dunham, and Jenji Kohan to fill their Serious Ladies panel celebrating women in comedy. All have written for TV, and with the exception of Wiig, all have a hit show right now –  The Mindy Project,  Girls, and Orange is the New Black, respectively.

It’s clear that television is the more progressive medium, giving well-formulated plotlines to women, people of colour, LGBTQ people, trans* women, and other marginalized identities, while film continues to underrepresent and celebrate privilege. Television mirrors culture, while film idealizes it.

These aren’t arguments trying to prove which is better artistically. The truth is film and television are just different, and it’s a grave injustice to art to try and compare the two. We don’t judge paintings in comparison to sculpture, nor do we judge jazz in comparison to spoken word poetry, yet we judge film in relation to television constantly. As communications students constantly learn, the medium is the message. Film and television have developed their own messages that work to impact everyone differently.

Where Joss Whedon proved a cult following could thrive on TV with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lars von Trier does cult films like it’s his second nature. Jenji Kohan created a popular, funny, dramatic show by women about women with different kinds of women, while Richard Linklater made history with his 12-year film Boyhood.

Shonda Rhimes’ How to Get Away with Murder is a spin on the crime-mystery genre and shows a dark-skinned woman in her natural hair, but Francis Ford Coppolla changed crime films with The Godfather.

There is no sense in competing; we should really just be grateful that this we live in an age where different kinds of art exist, and celebrate that we’ve gotten to the place where sitting in your living room with pizza enthralled by the TV can be considered art.

The End of Parenthood

The End of Parenthood

This article was previously published on The Silhouette

To me, the highest form of art is being able to make people feel enough that they want to continue engaging for years. In this art form, Jason Katims is one of the greats. From the highly-underrated yet critically-acclaimed Friday Night Lights to one of the best shows I have ever had the pleasure of watching, Parenthood. After six beautiful seasons, Parenthood wrapped up its last ever episode on Jan. 29, 2015. It took an entirety of five minutes for the waterworks to start and they literally continued until the end of the episode.

It’s not necessarily difficult to follow a show through six seasons; it is, however, to remain emotionally invested in one. It’s Katims’ ability to analyze the subtleties in human relationships and accurately portray those intricacies in delicate but true-to-life moments that made Parenthood so watchable. Without being too “after-school special,” it revealed what is of most importance in life: love, relationships, forgiveness, openness and family. Each episode served as a reminder of what appreciation feels like without coming across as if it was selling something. After each episode I had an overwhelming urge to call my parents, just to talk.

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The secret behind Parenthood was its ability to stay small-scale and capture the intimate moments behind human interaction instead of trying to say too much. It was honest storytelling based around characters who felt as the best written versions of themselves. T to the writers, the Bravermans were a real family. Single parenthood, PTSD, military relationships, autism, breast cancer, adoption, adultery, divorce, separation and other typical drama storylines were all present in Parenthood but it wasn’t just interested in presenting a cookie-cutter version. There is a moment in the series where Julia Braverman reveals she doesn’t feel love towards her adopted son yet. This statement, although most likely felt by a lot of new adoptive parents, has rarely been expressed in television. Instead, adoption is usually portrayed as an instant click and a immediate sense of certainty.

Parenthood is easy to dismiss, solely based on the premise. Family dramas, especially ensemble dramas, have the habit of skimming the surface of half-baked conflicts that never reflect the gravity of the same problem in real-life. Of course, when looking at the show critically, it’s important to recognize that the Bravermans were not the “every-family” – they were white, upper-middle class and Berkeley liberal – but the show still felt so personal because it replicated the moments that actually define relationships. Anyone with a close relationship whether friendly or familial knows that it’s not when having a perfect night with spot-on life advice that you realize how much you love your dysfunctional group, it’s when you find yourself fighting about decade old irrelevancies or doing the funky chicken with your siblings after a few bottles of wine. Not every family has to be as large or as close or as present as the Bravermans; sometimes your family is biological and sometimes your family is chosen, but they always represent your purest experience of love.

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Despite having all the markers of an ABC Family drama, Parenthood dodged the holier-than-thou moral absolutism that tends to litter family dramas. Occasionally young people smoked, occasionally middle-aged parents smoked and no one had the worst night of their lives because they got a little high. In fact, no one was scolded, reprimanded or given a lecture about the dangers of marijuana or for having an abortion, or for any of the other things that just happen with life. You learn and you grow and you make decisions based on your own world outlook and Parenthood respected this fact over and over again.

One key feature of Parenthood is its sentimentality that’s due to remembering the beauty in the emotions of a certain situation and that is a true rarity. It had the wit, the cinematography, the character development and most importantly, the feels, to be the potential game-changer. Shows like Brothers and Sisters, not based around people doing something or around a specific plot line, shows that just exist to show how people feel in large, encompassing facets of life like family, are dwindling.

There’s no narrative hook in family dramas, and perhaps society’s diminishing attention span and growing restlessness has resulted in a need for more action, or at least potential for action. The end of Parenthood arguably marks the end of family dramas.

There’s lies a real gap in this type of programming. ABC Family is perhaps the last network to do this, with The Fosters, which I think has the potential to be up there in the family drama Hall of Fame, but lacks an edge to each storyline. It’s heart-warming but perhaps a little naïve, most likely due to the lack of adult storylines other than Stef, Mike and Lena. But even The Fosters have a (much-needed) hook of an interracial lesbian couple raising a mixed houseful of adopted, biological and foster children.

Parenthood might just be the last ensemble drama that we ever see, most definitely the last we see with actual substance. But, why?  It had the potential to save NBC in a time where they were desperately in need but it failed. Perhaps it was because of the crappy time slots it was always given – always pitted behind two awful shows and having to contend with Shondaland Thursdays – or maybe it was just the sheer cost of having a large, marketable cast. Despite a loyal fan base, decent ratings and better writing – much better than some shows that continued to get renewed without improvement (thinking of you New Girl) —  Parenthood was continuously stuck in renewal purgatory after every season.

NBC was once at the top of its game, with shows like Cheers, Seinfeld, Friends and 30 Rock, so Parenthood seemed like an absolute knockout. Just looking at what happened to Community, a show loved by anyone who ever watched it, it’s easy to understand NBC’s tumultuous relationship with good but under-appreciated television.

I don’t know if it’s possible to have another ensemble show where every actor can hold their own, especially one as well-written as Parenthood. Indiewire noted that TV is moving from sincerity to sarcasm and this is definitely true. TV is also favouring the anti-hero and the superhero over families. Shows like Mad Men, The Good Wife and Breaking Bad repeatedly clean(ed) up at the awards but despite being left out of the big award shows repeatedly, albeit deservedly. Parenthood held its own despite being left out of the awards conversation, the only exception being Monica Potter’s 2014 Golden Globe and Jason Ritter’s Emmy nominations.

Ensemble dramas that center around a grand theme instead of twists and turns have no place in television anymore. As sad as this may be, it doesn’t mean that there is a lack of great television available. In fact, there is arguably more amazing television now than ever before, it’s just different. So, in celebration of Katims’ six-season run and The Bravermans’ last call, pour one out for shows like Brothers and Sisters,Gilmore Girls, Friday Night Lights, and the now-controversial 7th Heaven (minus Stephen Collins, because ew). We’ll always be Team Braverman forever.

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