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As Scene on TV: "Orange Is the New Black"

Orange is the New Black: “Thirsty Bird” – Piper’s Transferred

Orange_Is_the_New_Black_Thirsty_Bird_Piper_Chapman_Taylor_Schilling

Season one of Orange is the New Black ended on a nail-biter of a cliffhanger.  Series protagonist Piper was assaulted by the meth-head Jesus Freak Pennsatucky, leaving Piper to defend herself in a violently bloody brawl.  The season ended with the audience uncertain whether Pennsatucky lived or died, and what consequences would fall upon Piper.   After nearly eleven months, the second season premiered, only to further delay answers. 

http://youtu.be/MzS7msRMNck

Throughout the series, Piper has served as the “every man” eyes and ears inside the US prison system.  As a college educated, middle class career woman, Piper has more in common with many Netflix viewers than the uneducated blue-collar woman who comprise the majority of the prison population.  Throughout the season, we’ve been astonished with her as she’s navigated the prison world.

The premiere episode of season two brings us even more intimately to Piper’s state of mind, as her time spent wondering what fate will befall her for her actions mirrors the fan frenzy that has swirled since season one.  We can see that her time in solitary has allowed Piper to sink into a troubled state, where her only comfort comes from creating art from her breakfast eggs.

When the guards arrive and order Piper out, she’s as confused as we.  Neither the audience, nor Piper, knows Pennsatucky’s fate.  While Piper struggles with her guilt, the audience yearns for an answer.  When she’s transferred, Piper assumes this is a reaction to Pennsatucky’s likely death, inferring her information from minimal exposition, just as the television-savvy audiences are wont to do.

It’s not until well into the episode that we learn the real reason for Piper’s transfer, and it’s not until the start of the second episode that we learn what happened to Pennsatucky, and how their violent confrontation will impact Piper’s sentence.  In some shows, stringing out these reveals could feel like a cheap attempt to maintain dramatic tension.  In Orange is the New Black, however, the lack of information leads to greater empathy for Piper, and by extension, all of the prison population who face regular dehumanization in a variety of ways, including the withholding of pertinent information.  By withholding catharsis from the audience, Orange is the New Black symbolically helps us identify with the prisoner characters.

Angela Jorgensen originally hails from Iowa. She currently resides in Los Angeles and aspires to write for hour-long television dramas. She’s currently producing a documentary called The Longest Straw [www.thelongeststraw.wordpress.com].

As Scene On TV: "Game of Thrones"

Game of Thrones: “Viper and the Mountain” – Sansa’s Testimony

A few weeks ago, we took a look at a Game of Thrones episode, touching on how the scene used implication and insinuation to paint a more vivid picture than an explicit conversation could have conveyed.  Today, we’ll take a look at a different Game of Thrones scene, in which Sansa shows unusual character development by lying to cover for her aunt’s murderer during Petyr Baelish’s trial.

http://www.hbo.com/video/video.html/?autoplay=true&vid=1381053&filter=game-of-thrones&view=null#/

Prior to this point, Sansa has been a captive, passive, frightened character.  Amidst badasses and independent women, Sansa has served as an unlikeable, simpering girl who’s too frightened to become a woman.  While her characterization is consistent, and while Sansa’s had her reasons to be passive, particularly after seeing much of her immediate family killed for stepping out of line, Sansa’s character trajectory has not given any indication that she’s developed the sort of cunning necessary to lie on the witness stand, as she does on this scene.

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Ironically, in this scene, Sansa’s prior passivity is her greatest strength here.  She plays at being traumatized by her aunt’s “suicide,” a wide-eyed bystander in a series of unfortunate but innocent mistakes on the part of Petyr.  A known plotter like Petyr can’t be taken at his word, but sweet, young Sansa can be believed, a fact that Sansa exploits to her advantage as she corroborates Petyr’s story, then demonstrates her own power over him.  

Her final look up at him, while clichéd and somewhat choreographed, still serves as a power-move on Sansa’s part, an acknowledgement that while she helped Petyr, it is ultimately she who holds the power in this circumstance, and she’s aware of that fact and willing to exploit it.

Like the last post covering Game of Thrones, this scene doesn’t happen in the books, and is a whole-cloth invention of the show.  However, as the show doesn’t have the benefit of giving viewers a first-hand look at each character’s thought process, scenes like this, that demonstrate character change, are necessary.  After nearly three full seasons of being used as a pawn at King’s Landing, it’s time for Sansa to take initiate, as she does at her first opportunity.

Angela Jorgensen originally hails from Iowa. She currently resides in Los Angeles and aspires to write for hour-long television dramas. She’s currently producing a documentary called The Longest Straw [www.thelongeststraw.wordpress.com].

As Scene on TV: "Bob's Burgers"

Bob’s Burgers: “World Warf II” – Bad Things Are Bad

Of all the animated shows in Fox’s Sunday night Animation Domination block, Bob’s Burgers is by far the most grounded. Family Guy and American Dad are prone to their fantastical breaks from reality, while latter-day The Simpsons is almost unrecognizable from the real world it originally was meant to satire. Therefore, Bob’s Burgers can feel almost quaint in its grounded, character-driven stories. When it does break from reality, like, say, with a two-part episode featuring a murder plot and multiple musical numbers, the series demands attention to its uncharacteristic stylistic choices.

Bob Belcher_Mr. Fischoeder_World Wharf Two

http://www.hulu.com/embed.html?eid=vpavoatwnbluyeqqjck_mq&et=808&st=686

Unlike many other episodes, the season finale’s two-episode arc involves a soapy plot. A murderous gold digger, familial betrayal, and an episode-long murder attempt against Bob drive the story. Perhaps, a cynical viewer could attribute the heightened stakes to a ratings grab, but perhaps there is something deeper going on here.

The scene draws attention to its own artifice. Each singer stands in a beam of light, inspired by theatrical spotlights. Likewise, the scoring is simple and straightforward: compared to other orchestral pieces common to modern television music, the accompaniment here is a piano line, which wouldn’t be out-of-place in a small musical theater setting.

Next, let’s look at the musical nature of this scene. The musical number in part serves to link this second episode to the first part from the previous week. In “Wharf Horse,” Bob courts Fischoeder in an upbeat companion song called “Nice Things are Nice,” sung to the same tune, albeit in major key. In this episode, we get a tenser, larger group number that draws attention to the life-threatening peril that Bob has fallen into.

From a lyrical perspective, the chorus is so simplistic as to be tautological. Of course bad things are bad. The verses are comparably silly, as the supporting cast fails to recognize the importance of Bob’s disappearance. Andy and Ollie suggest that Bob may be in a vase, Jimmy Jr. can only talk about his pants, and Teddy is overly concerned about the loss of his favorite burger joint.

So what’s Bob’s Burgers doing here? Perhaps it’s mocking its own sense of high-stakes, by throwing a self-mocking musical number into the most dire scene of a life-or-death situation. As the most grounded Fox animated sitcom, it won’t go so far as to demolish the fourth wall, but it will draw attention to the constructed-ness of its situation. Of course the titular character won’t be killed off, and Bob’s Burgers is winking at the audience to let us know they’re in on the joke.

Angela Jorgensen originally hails from Iowa. She currently resides in Los Angeles and aspires to write for hour-long television dramas. She’s currently producing a documentary called The Longest Straw [www.thelongeststraw.wordpress.com].

As Scene on TV: "Community"

Community: “Basic Story” – Jeff and Britta Get Engaged

When is a joke not a joke?  When it’s played straight, so that only fans, who are familiar with character back stories, get it.

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In Community’s penultimate episode of the fifth season, the gang is faced with the prospect of their beloved Greendale Community College being sold to a corporate sponsor.  As Abed, Annie, and Dean Pelton desperately search for a way to save the school, Jeff and Britta face the prospect of re-entering the adult world.

http://www.hulu.com/embed.html?eid=wo1rwkjs3vheja_kiilgaq&et=1185&st=1028

Fans of Community know that Jeff and Britta’s romantic tension has not been played straight since season 2.  Although they’ve been sleeping together off-and-on, Jeff and Britta have not been portrayed as viable romantic partners prior to this scene.

So, their impulsive engagement must be played as parody, right?  Community is known for, if nothing else, its many parodies, sometimes of specific movies or videogames, and sometimes of whole genres.  So, in this scene, is the series mocking dramatic third-act romantic couplings?  Perhaps, but this scene is surprisingly lacking in humor.  Sure, it’s unexpected that Jeff and Britta immediately aim for public sex to celebrate their coupling, but their passionate kiss and excitement give the beat a more sweet, loving feel.  Until Abed, Annie, and the Dean enter with their ecstatic plan to save Greendale, the scene doesn’t feel like it belongs in a comedy.

So, if this scene is not meant to be comedic, perhaps it is, in fact, meant to be romantic.  However, this scene is lacking one key element of a love story: the love.  Not only do the characters not declare their feelings for one another, but their lead up to the proposal smacks of desperation – Jeff’s statement: “This is what keeps this all from being pointless.  Let’s do what people do,” demonstrates that  his proposal is borne more of a desire for symbolism than of any romanticism.  This isn’t a happy ending: it’s sort of pathetic.

So, why is this scene here?  Abed, the pop-culture obsessed trope-savvy 4th-wall breaker, spends the entire first act focused on story structure and seeking to create a plotline when his friends experience a rare absence of conflict.  This plotline draws attention to the constructed-ness of Community episodes, and begs the later scenes to be deconstructed.  

Throughout the scene, Jeff and Britta are focused on the future: life after Greendale, and by implication, life after the series ends.  Even as their future plans change, the pair is still focused definitively on what’s coming next, in contrast with the arcs of Abed, Annie, and the Dean, who try to save Greendale and preserve the status quo.

On a structural level, Jeff and Britta’s engagement scene functions like a mini-movie, complete with a beginning, middle, and end.  First, Jeff and Britta sit at the study room table, discussing their future plans.  The second act starts as Britta’s about to leave – Jeff impulsively proposes.  The third act is the consummation of these dreams – in this episode suggested through literal consummation.  However, here Jeff and Britta are interrupted pre-coitus, as the remainder of the cast enters with their manic pronouncement that they’ve discovered a map to buried treasure.  

If Jeff and Britta’s scene is a story about endings, which itself lacks an ending, then this scene is sub-textually undermining the idea that anything ends.  Philosophically, this exploration is just one of the many ways Community reveals itself to be deeper than the standard sitcom.  Story-wise, it’s only appropriate that our characters’ happy ending be deferred, as this isn’t even the last episode of the season, and the show stands the chance for renewal.   In an episode where Greendale’s salvation is discovered when Abed literally peeks behind the fourth wall, we get a scene that defies the notion of ending by enticing the audience with a depiction of what Jeff and Britta’s happy ending could be, but isn’t.

Angela Jorgensen originally hails from Iowa. She currently resides in Los Angeles and aspires to write for hour-long television dramas. She’s currently producing a documentary called The Longest Straw [www.thelongeststraw.wordpress.com].

As Scene on TV: "Resurrection"

Resurrection: “Pilot” - Opening Scene

The difference between a good story and a great story often lies in the degree of detail and coherence.  Anyone can tell a story that makes sense and fits together, but a real work of art is elevated above other creative media in the careful construction of its smallest parts; a single scene can bear narrative weight even outside the context of the larger episode in which it occurs.

Resurrection_Cast

Take a look at a recent scene from a newly premiered show: Resurrection, the opening scene (00:00-02:15).  The full episode is viewable at http://www.hulu.com/watch/606178.

The scene is simple, almost dialog-free, but sets up several mysteries of the series.  A young boy, wearing American clothing, wakes in a rice paddy somewhere in rural China.  He walks through a street, until he encounters a couple who ask him a question in what closed captioning only identifies as “Chinese dialect,” which is not subtitled.  The boy asks the only line of dialog in the scene (or at least the only line in English, and therefore the only intelligible line for the majority of the show’s viewers): “Is she dead?”  Then, the boy faints.

Pilots bear a heavy burden in the world of a television series.  They need to capture the viewer’s interest, and tell a satisfying story, while establishing the characters, their conflicts, and the rules of the world.  In the world of television development, a pilot runs the risk of being the only episode of a series ever produced, unless it wows network and studio executives and stands out amongst dozens of other pilots produced each development cycle.  And after all of this pressure, the pilot must leave enough conflict open-ended that there’s room for years’ worth of subsequent seasons.

Resurrection boldly tackles these issues with a strategy that is apparent even in the opening scene.  A great deal of information is conveyed wordlessly in this opening: based on the disorienting nature of the opening shots, we know that mystery is going to be an element of the show.  The main character, who we later learn is named Jacob, is clearly an outsider, as the lone Caucasian English-speaking child in a village of Chinese farmers.  This theme of Jacob-as-outsider becomes an integral part of the show’s premise.  And the lone line of dialog, “Is she dead?” hints at the themes addressed in the show, questioning the finality of death, while also setting up plot points that will occur later in the episode regarding the cause of death for the unnamed “she.”

None of these suggested themes or plot points are explicitly stated (at least not in this scene), and a viewer may not even be consciously aware of these hints, but on some level, a person watching this episode is now primed for all of the events that will follow in this episode, and in the rest of the series.

I’m not going to spoil the episode by discussing specific plot points for the episode, but I would like to touch on the premise of the series, which according to IMDB, is “The lives of the people of Arcadia, Missouri, are forever changed when their deceased loved ones return.”  People who have seen the Resurrection ad campaign know that the show will entail the dead returning to life.  Viewers will probably even (correctly) intuit that this boy is one of the dead who return.  However, Resurrection is a rare series where viewers who are familiar with the show’s premise and those who are not start on equal footing, at least in the opening scene.  We know something weird is going on, but we don’t know exactly what, yet.  We’re not even sure if that’s the right question, but we’re being guided toward the real meat of the story.

All in all, Resurrection may not be a perfect show, but its opening scene perfectly encapsulates the themes of the series while setting up several key plot points without feeling overly expositional.  It draws the viewer in, giving just enough information to hook him and depict how strange the situation is, before the rest of the episode lets the situation get even stranger.  Not every show has an opening season that sets up the series so effectively, but when it does, you know the show is working at a higher level: maybe even one that could qualify as art.