Streaming TV Roundup: ‘HOUSE OF CARDS’, ‘ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK,’ ‘HANDMAID’S TALE’

Sean Knight chimes in with mini-reviews of some of the latest from Netflix and Hulu.

House of Cards, Season 5 (Netflix)

Let’s get this out of the way: if the sole reason you tune into House of Cards is to watch the deliciously over-the-top, conniving chemistry between stars Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, Season 5 won’t disappoint. Unfortunately, if you are looking for a reprieve from our current political predicament, you’ll often find yourself bewildered by the current season’s grandstanding. The parallels are certainly in place between the Underwoods and Trumps of the world, but it all feels far too calculated and tame when compared to the everyday White House coverage on CNN. This problem set in last year when House of Cards Season 4 premiered in the midst of one of the wildest primaries in recent memory. Things have only gotten worse since then with the established political rulebook being largely thrown out the window. In order to keep up with the current mood, the showrunners (Melissa James Gibson and Frank Pugliese, replacing series creator Beau Willimon) turn to increasingly convoluted plotting that becomes nigh impossible to follow by episode 13.

Season 4 may have inadvertently stumbled due to lack of foresight, but it made up for it with heavy character drama and powerhouse scenes between its leads. This time around the show simply hasn’t learned from its mistakes. Instead of delectable mother-daughter clashes (to be fair, Ellen Burstyn’s character died), we get a shady, Chinese medicine-high, government operative in the form of Patricia Clarkson’s Jane Davis, whose motivations remain dubious to the end. House of Cards’ character stalwarts Doug Stamper, Seth Grayson, LeAnn Harvey, Thomas Yates, Tom Hammerschmidt, and Catherine Durant all have significant chess moves throughout the narrative, but their effect remains blunted by shoddy writing.

Perhaps most sinful of all, the embrace of terror at Season 4’s end is quickly breezed through in a mere handful of episodes and the show’s new main antagonist (Will Conway) is reduced to a bumbling man-child with none of the chutzpah of our current toddler-in-chief. Claire’s direct address of the camera in the Season 4 finale doesn’t rear its head again until a brief moment halfway through the season and again in its final seconds. We’ll have to wait until next year to see if her turn with the audience will be any more stimulating than Frank’s five increasingly irrelevant addresses. The problem with the Underwoods in today’s political landscape is much the same as that of the Clintons: they are accomplished dinosaurs who no longer understand the reality in which they find themselves. The electorate has lit the capital on fire. It’s time for the show to do the same.  

The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)

Has a television show ever been this topical, bracing, and socially conscious? Probably, but due to the current cultural mood it’s almost impossible to sit through The Handmaid’s Tale and not be overwhelmed by its disturbing prescience. Based on the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel and taking place in a near-future totalitarian United States, it depicts a society overtaken by religious extremism where women who are fertile are used as pregnancy surrogate sex-slaves for the largely sterile commanders of the new fascist order. These handmaids are subject to all manner of cruelties as they watch and unwittingly participate in the societal cleansing of America. In the middle of it all is a breathtaking Elisabeth Moss, whose mesmerizing performance is layered between shrouds of doubt, fear, horror, and ferocious determination. Moss carries the colossal weight of the series on her shoulders and is never overwhelmed by its emotional oppression. Through seething internalized pain, indignant voice-over monologues, and vigorous character interactions Moss is able to deliver what is easily the performance of the year in any medium.

Showrunner Bruce Miller depicts this world with unflinchingly grim detail, utilizing frequent flashbacks to create a kaleidoscope of complex character portraits and tangible world history. The use of modern pop/rock covers immediately jolts the audience awake, challenging their perception of contemporary reality. The show is gorgeous from top to bottom with every element coalescing into a credible portrait of a world in moral turpitude. The Handmaid’s Tale is a dire warning for our society. It’s also the most uncompromising piece of entertainment currently on television and unreservedly the best show of the year.

Orange is the New Black, Season 5 (Netflix)

Orange is the New Black has always been a show of varying qualities, but its fierce feminist ensemble has always been its strongest asset. That hasn’t changed with Season 5, which takes a unique structure this time around by having its 13 episodes take place over the course of 4 days immediately following the aftermath of Poussey’s tragic death. What results is a season that feels unnecessarily stretched, with many episodes taking place during a single day. While some of the minor characters’ petulant shenanigans would normally carry a breezy charm, here they just come off as obnoxious. You can only watch inmates pantsing unsuspecting victims and sniffing Clorox for so many hours before it becomes grating. Worse yet, series MVPs such as Kate Mulgrew’s Red get relegated to hours of drug-induced rantings that betray their established character’s dignity.

That being said, the show is still delightfully diverse and intentionally up to date. Orange is the New Black has never been afraid to tackle controversial subjects while indulging in comedy, and the new season is no exception with Black Lives Matter and prison conditions are presented front and center. Every year different characters tend to seize the spotlight while Taylor Schilling’s progressively peripheral Piper still gets top billing. This year Selenis Leyva’s Gloria gets meaty material when her character tries to navigate a prison riot while her son suffers through a coma in the hospital. Other standouts include Danielle Brooks’ Tasty, who struggles with the emotional fallout of her best friend’s death, and Nick Sandow as warden Caputo, whose big heart clouds his judgement on every front. The tone is frequently wild this season — moving between broad comedy, hard drama, and strange shock horror tropes — but the ensemble and the strength of the premise keeps the show afloat. As has become the norm for Orange is the New Black, the season ends in an uncertain place with many characters’ fates hanging in the balance. It’s a hook that will keep it’s audience coming back again and again, no matter how uneven a given season may be.

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