I’ve recently discovered the wonderful ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK on Netflix and have watched 9 episodes in the last week.
It’s wonderfully inventive, multi-layered series story-telling that has something important and interesting to say and is funny, scary and moving. It’s also at times pretty filthy – but above all highly entertaining.
It’s been interesting comparing it to Breaking Bad which has become the cliché ‘go-to’ US indie series of the day. I felt the same about the first two series of Breaking Bad – brilliantly inventive, imaginative, daring storytelling of real flair. With brilliant characters and story ideas, and a highly original tone. But for me – and I acknowledge this isn’t the majority view, in fact it’s almost sacreligious! – Breaking Bad rather ran out of steam after the first two series. I stuck with it thru series 3-5 but it has become increasingly less interesting to me (And I seem to have stalled at about ep.8 of series 5). I feel like thru series 3-5 it lost its momentum, and its narrative edge. I felt Walter White became less clear as a character, that story beats were repeated, and that the White domestic set-up became less and less believable and interesting. I’m not sure I ever bought into the idea that Skyler – once she found out what Walt had been up to – would support him and agree to live off the proceeds, effectively acting as his money launderer. Walt junior never became an integral part of the story and throughout remained a bland and strangely unconnected character. And the idea that it never occurred to DEA cop Hank that his chemistry-genius brother may be the drug manufacturer he has spent so long looking for become less and less credible. Particularly in series 4 and 5 it felt to me like the story too often trod water delaying the ending beyond its natural life.
In comparison to the last series of BB, the first few episodes of OITNB feel fresh, vital, edgy, highly engaging and compelling.
One big difference between the two is that structurally OITNB is far more of a traditional series – prison is a wonderful series precinct (see ‘Oz’) with a host of characters with captivating stories. Whereas Breaking Bad always felt more like an extended serial* – and in later series extended beyond its natural life. OITHNB, like many of the best series, has the potential to be constantly and organically refreshed with new cast arriving in the prison and old cast leaving.
The structural conceit of moving between the ‘present’ in the prison and flashbacks to the lives of the characters before they were in prison works brilliantly. The insights we see into the prisoners’ former lives are like little treats as we discover their secrets and the reasons why they ended up in prison in the first place. And the range and variety of characters is wonderful, not only among the prisoners but the prison staff as well. The character arc of Counsellor Sam Healy, for instance, is a brilliant example of character development. So much of the character development is unexpected and unsurprising but still consistent and truthful.
As you’ll see from these links (below), there has been some debate about how to categorise OITNB – comedy or drama? It doesn’t fit exactly into either category but then calling it ‘comedy drama’ doesn’t quite do it justice either – it’s hard-edged and uncomfortable whereas comedy drama generally seems to imply something a little softer round the edges. Like much of the best pioneering TV drama (yes I’d personally categorise it as drama rather comedy – although much of it is laugh-out-loud funny) it is tonally unique. It’s interesting comparing it to the US male prison drama OZ, which had the same imaginative and narrative brilliance, but was, not surprisingly, a lot more macho and tonally unrelenting. There is more hope, optimism and light in OITHNB – although there are some horribly bleak moments as well.
I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a series as much since THE BRIDGE – it’s an object lesson in imaginative but also disciplined series structuring \ storytelling.
*There have been two really interesting examples of ‘extended serials’ on Channel 4 – ‘TOP BOY’ and ‘UTOPIA’ which is coming back for a 2nd series. ‘TOP BOY’ (by Ronan Bennett) worked brilliantly in its 2nd series, and it will be fascinating to see what Dennis Kelly does with series 2 of UTOPIA.
SCREENWRITING BLOGS PART 2
Following up on last week’s list of blogs, here are a few suggestions from you – thank you!
And a few goodies that I missed…
Yvonne Grace. A script editor \ producer who really knows her stuff!
Lisa Holdsworth – enjoyably feisty but very [perceptive blogs about the UK screenwriting scene. I particularly enjoyed http://deadlinesanddiamonds.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/find-lady.html and I’m delighted to help redress the balance in that 10 of the 12 writers on the 2014 Channel 4 screenwriting course are female!
Not strictly speaking screenwriting – but a wonderful example of the entertainment value of observation of the minutiae of ordinary life by writer Jayne Williams.
Some great screenwriting tips from US writer TONY GILROY
Weird and wonderful musings from US screenwriter \ creator of COMMUNITY, DAN HARMON.
Excellent writer AARON HUBBARD’s ‘interviews with UK scriptwriters.’
An excellent US blog post about whether script consultants are waste of time and money!
John Cleese on Creativity. Brilliant.
BBC Writers Room blogs by two of the UK’s best TV dramatists – Tony Basgallop & Jed Mercurio
About brain injuries and creativity! Really fascinating.
A very concise and entertaining introduction to John Yorke’s excellent book about story-telling and script-writing – ‘Into The Woods.’ (And weirdly the picture of Roy Scheider from Jaws looks uncannily like John!)
Fascinating article about Netflix series HOUSE OF CARDS and ‘binge-viewing.’
Dave Scullion – screenwriting alumni of the 2013 Channel 4 screenwriting course and always entertaining!
Happy Christmas and here’s to a brilliant, creative 2014. I’m giving myself a couple of weeks off to sloth and self-indulgence – the blog will be back on Jan 10th,
All the best