Tom Leins reviews two fascinating new TV dramas in this week’s DVD round-up.
Based on the bestselling memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman, Orange Is The New Black – Season One (Lionsgate)tells the story of what happens when engaged New Yorker Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling, The Lucky One) is arrested and sent to a federal penitentiary for the ten-year-old crime of transporting money for her drug-smuggler girlfriend Alex Vause (Laura Prepon, That 70s Show). In prison the pair are unexpectedly reunited and forced to re-examine their relationship at close quarters, while playing an active role in the lives of their fellow inmates.
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As one of the highest-profile original Netflix productions to date, Orange Is The New Black’s cult reputation arguably precedes it. The show’s blend of quirky comedy and dark drama is generally successful, although the uneven tone flatters to deceive at times. Smarter and more ambitious than Wentworth – the gritty Prisoner Cellblock H re-boot that aired last year – OITNB comes up strangely short in the plot stakes, and lacks the Australian show’s collision-course-derived plotting. Also, aside from the debatable narrative momentum, not all of the back stories feel genuinely satisfying, with protagonist Piper one of the less interesting central characters. Somewhat inevitably, this means that she is frequently overshadowed by the more charismatic members of the cast.
US critics have suggested that OITNB is the spiritual heir to Oz, HBO’s disturbingly enjoyable prison drama, but for my money it doesn’t come close – at least not to Oz’s peerless early seasons. As an introduction to the engaging ensemble cast, this first series of OITNB largely succeeds, but the stakes need to be raised if the show is to outgrow its early Netflix-derived curiosity factor. An acquired taste.
Set in Aberystwyth, Wales, Hinterland – The Complete Season One (Arrow Video) follows talented-but-troubled DCI Tom Mathias (Richard Harrington, Bleak House), who finds himself back in deepest, darkest Wales after a decade working in London. On his first day in his new job Mathias is called out to investigate the suspicious disappearance of 64-year-old Helen Jenkins, whose quiet seaside bungalow is splattered with blood. His investigation leads him to an ancient ravine at Devil’s Bridge, before the trail leads him to a box of teeth and a long-abandoned children’s home.
After an excellent opening episode, the quality dips unforgivably in the second segment, which takes on a dirge-like quality. The bleak mood remains, but the quirky details that distinguished the first outing are painfully absent. Much has been made of Hinterland’s resemblance to the still-popular Nordic Noir sub-genre of TV crime – not least the likes of The Killing and The Bridge – but the comparisons are misleading. The writers’ decision to structure the show as four independent movie-length episodes, rather than weave together a more intricate overarching narrative arguably undermines its strengths.
Richard Harrington has the brooding loner cop act down to a tee, but the bulk of the supporting cast do little to distinguish themselves, which adds to the feeling of thwarted potential. Hopefully the show’s unexpected crossover appeal will prompt the writers to go back to the drawing board for series two, and develop a storyline that does justice to Harrington and the evocative setting. In conclusion: interesting but uneven.