Saturday, October 15, 2016

Idiot Boxing: Orphan Black, season 4 (2016); Ballers, season 1 (2015)

Orphan Black, season 4 (2016)

A quality return to the strong roots of the show, after what I found to be an overly expansive third season.

In the wake of the overwhleming revelations about more Lida clones, in addition to a whole parcel of psychotic, soldier Castor clones in season 3, season 4 gets back to some of the basics laid out in the first season. Namely, what Neolution was ever truly after, and how Sarah and her sisters can avoid death via the latent illness built into their DNA. Blessedly, the tale narrows its focus more on a smaller amount of characters and goes back to the very beginning of the story and even before, when we get to see what led up to Beth Childs's suicide - the event which drew Sarah into the entire affair way back in the pilot episode.

I have to admit that, after not having watched the show since the end of the previous season, it helped that the pace slowed down and returned to familiar territory. Later in this season, my mind was actually racing to recall certain characters and events which I hadn't seen or thought about in at least a year, but starting this fourth season a bit more slowly was a great help. And while the end of this season did raise a few puzzling questions and may not have offered the satisfaction that you might hope for from a season finale, the pieces are clearly in place for the fifth season - reportedly the shows last.

Sarah (left) and relative newcomer to "Clone Club," Crystal.
The bimbo Crystal is definitely a comic relief, but they don't
overdo her presence - just one of many examples of how this
season gets the tricky balancing act of the show correct.
The story in season 4 focuses more on the power struggle within Neolution regarding the future of their genetic engineering and eugenics projects. The primary players are the young a eerily exotic-looking Evie Cho, and Lida clone Rachel Duncan, who is still recovering from her attack at the hands of Sarah. As Evie and Rachel try to out-maneuver one another, Sarah and her sisters attempt to uncover more truths about their place in the entire affair. While the plot points can get a bit convoluted at times, the important points clarify by season's end.

Like many such briskly-paced thrillers, Orphan Black will occasionally make use of the speed of its narrative to gloss over actions or points that don't always add up. Characters will sometimes act in ways that do not show the intelligence or foresight that their characters are meant to possess, usually in the name of creating interesting dynamics or moving the plot forward. Fortunately, these aspects do not hamstring the show, as they are usually relatively minor points that never sabotage the major themes or motivations.

It's almost a given at this point, but the acting is tremendous. Tatiana Maslany hasn't slackened a bit in her acting gymnastics of playing seven different, very distinct clones. She finally won an Emmy for it, as well, which is beyond well-deserved, if not a year or two late. The rest of the cast holds just as well, but Maslany truly is the show.

I was really pleased with this season. After season three, which had expanded the character roster and scope to almost dizzying size, I was afraid that I was watching a show that had no real end-game plan and was just spinning out ideas in order to keep the show running for as long as they could. Season four, however, showed that there was always a clear plan in mind, and the show is heading towards its ultimate resolution. If the final season even comes close to living up to this promise, this will become a classic of modern speculative fiction.

Ballers, season 1 (2015)

It's not a game-changing, mind-blowing sports drama/comedy, but Ballers had just enough surprises to be engaging.

Starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as a recently-retired former star NFL linebacker Spencer Strasmore, the show follows "Spence", who is based in Miami, as he tries to forge a new career as a financial planner for current NFL players. The show draws on the antics of rich, immature athletes for much of its entertainment value. A fist fight in a club over a verbal insult. Raucous parties with booze, drugs, and women. More than one athlete too self-absorbed to realize how ridiculous his behavior is. These are not exactly new grounds being broken. While I didn't find many of the athletes' antics particularly hilarious or revelatory, I will admit that there are more than a few good lines of dialogue sprinkled in.

Rather than the inside look at the daily insanity of the lives of some wealthy pro athletes, it is the character of Spence and what revolves around him that gives the show a dash of novelty. Spence represents that segment of athletes that make for the sadder stories. The gifted athlete who forged a great career, but has far less to show for it than he probably should. Although very accomplished as a player, Spence has very little of the financial security that other modern athletes of his caliber ought to have. His attempt to forge a new career as a financial planner seems to be a form of redemption as much as a way to pay his bills. In trying to find his very first clients, he sees men not much younger or further from their post-playing days than Spence is, and he is trying to help them avoid the mistakes that he made. This is, of course, easier said than done when dealing with extremely competitive, egotistical personalities. The drama arising from Spence's attempts to make his clients, and sometimes their delusional entourages, see the light is often compelling, humorous, or both. One memorable example is watching Spence's incredulity when having to tell one of his star clients why its not a good idea to be snorting cocaine off of a woman's breasts in front of dozens of people on a party boat. Such scenes' humor is often carried by Dwayne Johnson's acting and wonderfully expressive face, which bears every ounce of frustration that a parent would have trying to talk sense into a four year old. The Rock has shown his acting chops before this, and Ballers just further confirms that he is far more than just a tall pile of muscles.

Spence and Ricky Jerret, Spence's most volatile client. Much
of this first season focuses on Spence working to not only get
Ricky a solid contract but also helping Ricky avoid acting
like an adolescent in ways that harm his brand.
Another unexpected layer is that Spence himself is also dealing with the physical toll left by his many years playing football. The concern hovering over Spence for much of this first season is the possibility of head trauma - a condition for which he is highly reluctant to get checked out. While the resolution does come, it offers a rather palatable outcome that perhaps undercuts the seriousness of this issue. I only hope that it is revisited in future episodes, if not with Spence directly, then with one or more of his clients. There is also the Spence's ongoing use/abuse of painkilling medication, which is not fully addressed in this season, but is clearly presented as an issue which will be further explored.

I actually liked this first season more than I had expected, although it is hardly breaking breaking any new ground. While it is interesting to focus on the off-the-field issues of professional athletes, much of Ballers is relatively light fare, some but not all of which is entertaining. I'll be checking out the second season to see how it evolves, and if it lives up to the potential this first season shows.