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Like any good shrink, Hulu’s UnPrisoned begins by meeting its characters where they are, and where they are at first seems to be an odd-couple comedy. Paige (Kerry Washington) is a therapist whose Instagram-friendly polish masks a messy personal life; her father, Edwin (Delroy Lindo), is a natural charmer fresh off a 17-year prison sentence. It doesn’t take a relationship expert to foresee the battles to come over old grudges, new boundaries or Paige’s teenage son Finn (Faly Rakotohavana) — and indeed, most of them come to pass over the season’s eight episodes.
But also like a good shrink, UnPrisoned has no interest in sticking to the surface. It wants to dig and dig and dig, all the way down to the kinds of formative childhood traumas that take a lifetime to unpack. The journey isn’t always a pleasant one; the contrast between the series’ bubbly surface and its brittle core can result in a distinctly acrid tang. Yet the same unevenness that makes the series confounding is also what makes it oddly compelling, as it strives in earnest toward the grace that’s so long eluded its heroine.
Cast: Kerry Washington, Delroy Lindo, Marque Richardson, Faly Rakotohavana, Jordyn McIntosh, Brenda Strong, Jee Young Han
Creator: Tracy McMillan
Initially, though, UnPrisoned (Onyx Collective’s first scripted comedy) just feels somehow off. While its lightly comic tone and half-hour run time suggest an easy-breezy comfort watch, there’s an anxious quality that makes it stick in the throat. It’s in Paige’s too-broad smile and self-deprecating laugh, and in the strained friendliness between Edwin and Paige when she picks him up from the penitentiary. When the show does go for straight laughs, it often reaches for the low-hanging fruit of obvious sex jokes — like the mortification of Paige’s phone reading out sexts in front of her dad and son — which seem to have been written for some other, broader sitcom.
UnPrisoned fares better with humor mined from the contrast between Paige’s trained-professional approach to the relationships in her life and Edwin’s more pragmatic, streetwise one. In one episode, Paige’s smug insistence that the fact that her still-married boyfriend (Tim Daly) never lies to her is a sign of his seriousness is upended by Edwin’s countering insistence that it’s a red flag: “The side chick, she knows everything,” he explains, “’cause the man doesn’t give a fuck what the sidepiece thinks.” When Edwin lies to Paige about his job prospects later in the episode, it reads as both a minor betrayal of her trust and an affirmation that he truly does care about her, in his own imperfect way.
As a character, Edwin benefits tremendously from Lindo’s towering magnetism. He generates instant chemistry with all the actors in his orbit — including the many, many random women he’s able to win over with hoary lines like “Has anyone ever told you you look just like Jennifer Lopez?” His complicated reconciliation with Paige may be the meat of the series, but his frisky relationship with his on-off girlfriend Nadine (a fabulous Brenda Strong) and his affectionate mentorship of his grandson make for some of the sweetest moments. When Lindo’s given more dramatic material — as in the standout sixth episode, which turns into a meditation on Blackness as the family revisits their painful history in his Alabama hometown — he runs away with them.
Lindo is so lovable, in fact, that his allure threatens to skew the audience’s sympathies in Edwin’s favor when he’s butting heads with Paige. By contrast, Washington’s nails Paige’s wariness, her vulnerability and her capacity for kindness, but doesn’t overly concern herself with trying to make her seem particularly likable. (“Being a therapist kind of fucks with your people-pleasing skills,” Paige shrugs.) Her prickliness keeps UnPrisoned from feeling as warm and cuddly as it could be, though the series does start to mellow as Paige opens up over the course of the season.
But that, too, feels like a form of generosity. Here’s a show that doesn’t insist Paige has to be perfect to be deserving of love, that acknowledges her feelings as valid, that takes seriously the emotional scars left behind by her father’s decades-long struggle with the criminal justice system. Creator Tracy McMillan (formerly a writer on Mad Men and Runaways) has said she based the series on her own real-life experiences, and it shows in such displays of understanding.
The series’ boldest narrative flourish is the sporadic appearance of Paige’s metaphorical inner child, depicted onscreen as a literal child: Jordyn McIntosh dressed in Hanna Andersson-sized versions of Washington’s flared jeans and embellished blazers, giving voice to frustrations Paige would never express out loud. As a running gag, it’s more miss than hit. The conceit is too cutesy by half and threatens to tip the series over into full-tilt wackiness, without conveying a whole lot we can’t already glean from Washington’s disgruntled facial expressions.
But it’s also a vivid illustration of UnPrisoned‘s central ideas about the way childhood wounds reverberate into adulthood — and it gains new resonance in the second half of the season, when the show allows it to play as something other than a joke. That the series spends so long struggling to do so feels, with the benefit of hindsight, less like a miscalculation than an intentional choice, mirroring Paige’s own tendency to paper over unruly feelings with strained laughs and forced cheer.
“Sometimes, until you make the wrong choice, you don’t really know what the right choice is,” Nadine gently advises Paige late in the season. With its awkward mix of tones, UnPrisoned feels at times like a series made of up of wrong choices on the way to finding the right one. But even in its flaws — or maybe because of them — the series finds intriguing depth in the messiness of lived experience, and the clear-eyed compassion of someone who’s worked through enough of it to grasp the difference between what people owe one another and what we want to provide for one another, between excusing someone’s bad behavior and forgiving it, between being right and being free.
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