"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris



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Derek, Orange is the New Black, and the Sophomore Slump

I recently binge-watched both season one and season two of "Derek" on Netflix. I had very low expectations for the show. I don't consider myself a fan of Ricky Gervais, that is not to say that I dislike him or his work, it is just to say that he is not someone I really think about when it comes to acting. I'm not sure why that is, I liked "Extras" very much and thought the series finale was one of the best things I had seen on television in a long time, and of course, "The Office" is a classic.

"Derek" is the story of Derek and the old folks home he 'works' at with his fellow misfits. The show is shmaltzy, maudlin, manipulative, cheesy…and yet…I really liked it. Let me qualify that...I really liked season one. In season one, Gervais is completely committed to the character, physically, mentally, emotionally. He is 'Derek' all the time. It is a quirky and somewhat mannered performance, but Gervais succeeds in making you believe him as Derek and care about him. Derek is simple, sweet, genuine and kind, basically the polar opposite of everyone else Ricky Gervais has ever played. Gervais is able to tap into much deeper wells of emotion through fully inhabiting a character so far removed from his previous roles and public persona. It is a tribute to him that he had the courage to try and take on such a part.

The supporting cast is excellent as well. Karl Pilkington in particular is fantastic as the nursing home jack of all trades, and he and Gervais have such a specific and interesting chemistry that brings them both to life. Kerry Godliman is also great as the director of the nursing home. One thing Gervais does very well, is cast women who are beautiful and charming but also real. His leading women are all very appealing because we know them, these are women who inhabit real-life, not 'Hollywood life'.  The rest of the cast does an excellent job as well.

Season two, though, is a different story. Pilkington is gone, and his second fiddle position is filled by David Earl as Kev, an alcoholic loser, who was also in season one, but his role was less prominent. Earl does a great job of being funny and heartbreaking as Kev, making him a fully formed and complex character, not just a one-trick pony. The problem, though, is that with Pilkington's Dougie gone, and Kev moving up the food chain to second banana, no one steps up to replace Kev as the third banana. So it is just Derek and Kev with Dougie gone.

Another problem with season two is Gervais. For some reason, he simply can't stick with the character Derek, as we got to know him in season one. Maybe it was too taxing for him, maybe he just had to let the audience in on the joke but, in season two, Gervais makes Derek more self-aware and less simplistic, and by doing so, undermines the premise of the show. Throughout season two, Derek does takes to the camera where he gives the audience a knowing look. What made Derek so appealing to me in season one was that he would give takes to the camera and have a clueless look, he was lost. He wasn't in on the joke. In season two, Derek's takes to the camera are done with self-awareness. Derek is in on the joke in season two, and by making him self-aware and smarter, our sympathies for him are removed. It almost feels like Gervais is winking at us to let us all know that HE knows, and that the show itself is a joke, and we unwitting butts of it.

Season two also goes beyond the pale in terms of manipulation. "Derek"  is a manipulative show to begin with, we have a main character who is a sweet simpleton in what can be a cruel, uncaring world. But in season two, the show pulls at our heartstrings with a never ending cavalcade of miseries that reek of desperation. (SPOILER ALERT!!!) There's the death of Derek's long-lost and now found father, there's a miscarriage, hell, there's even Derek's favorite dog dying.  In season two, the show switched from trying to get the viewer to understand and like Derek, to getting the viewer to pity him. Pity is the least creative or imaginative way to get someone to feel something, and the show suffers because of it.

So watch season one, and enjoy Ricky Gervais stepping out of his comfort zone, but skip season two.

I also recently binge-watched "Orange is the New Black" on Netflix. The show is the story of Piper, a white, upper-middle class, bi-sexual woman played by Taylor Schilling, who is sentenced to a year in prison for laundering money ten years earlier for her drug dealing girlfriend. The girlfriend, played by Laura Prepon, also gets sentenced to the same prison as Piper. To make matters more complicated, Piper has a fiancé, played by Jason Biggs, on the outside waiting for her to get out of prison so they can get married.

Season one is really well done. It expertly introduces all the characters, the other prisoners, the prison staff and Piper's family in a really well thought out and cohesive way. Piper's fish-out-of-water routine is what drives the comedy, but the narrative is driven by her complicated relationship with ex-gf Alex (Laura Prepon), and her fiancé, Larry (Jason Biggs).

Sprinkled in among the main narrative, are little snippets of the backstory and lives of the other prisoners and prison staff. This is really well done and is a great idea to give depth and meaning to the many secondary characters. Whether it is the prison supervisor who plays bass in a band, or the guard married to a Ukrainian mail-order gold digger, or the black inmate who was adopted by white parents who had their own 'miracle' white child after adopting, or the young woman raised in the foster system who is an easy mark for a drug dealing 'mom', or the Russian woman who dared to over step her bounds with the men in the Russian mafia, all of the secondary stories are interesting and effective.

The thing I like the most about "Orange is the New Black" is the ensemble cast. It is filled with actors who we might never have seen without this show. They are lesser known character actors who rarely, if ever, get the screen time that they deserve. In "Orange", they get that time, and they get meaty roles and story lines that give them the chance to show how good they really are. It is refreshing to see new faces dominate a show, and do it so very well.

Season one really moves along at a great pace with not only the Piper story driving us forward, but also the secondary stories creating a complete picture of the men and women who work and live at the prison. It is a really interesting, unique and entertaining show and I highly recommend it.

Season two, on the other hand, is not so great. The secondary stories are still there, in fact, they have an even more prominent role in the show.  While I find those stories interesting, and the actors in them do well, those stories do not drive the narrative. The narrative is driven by the Piper story, and in season two, the Piper story fizzles.

Season two starts off meandering, but then just goes into full blown wandering. The season feels rudderless and directionless most of the time. Piper's fish-out-of-water routine is greatly diminished because she now knows prison life. Now she flounders in the real world, and we only see brief glimpses of that. Her relationship with Alex is over, and Alex is gone for most of the season. Her relationship with Larry is over, and his role is greatly reduced for most of the season. While I love the secondary stories, they are not enough to drive the narrative forward in a compelling fashion. It is sort of like eating only mashed potatoes and stuffing on Thanksgiving, with no turkey.  The Piper/Alex/Larry story is the turkey, and season two is lacking it. 

"Orange is the New Black", like "Derek", suffers from the 'sophomore slump'. The sophomore slump is not an unusual malady for a tv show…or a film, band, artist, athlete or student. If you think about it, the sophomore slump is such a universal ailment, that the only people that really stick out are the ones who don't suffer from it. 

The best example of why a sophomore slump occurs is in the music business. A band may spend ten years writing and playing their material before they get signed to a record deal, then they record the material and people love it. Then they go into the studio to record the second album. Well, they don't have ten years to write and play the new material and perfect and fine tune it. They have a few months. So, unless they have a huge backlog of material they didn't use on the first album, then they have to write and record new material in a short period of time. And even if they do have a huge backlog of material, it isn't going to be as good as the first record, because that material was passed over on the first record.

The same thing happens with a tv show, or a film. You put all of your good ideas into season one because you desperately need to have them pick up season two. Also, you have learned a whole bunch of lessons from your first season, but you have to integrate those lessons in a much shorter period of time than you had for your debut. The other danger is, you don't want to simply repeat yourself with your second season. It is a tough spot to be in, no doubt. That is why those uninfected by the sophomore slump are the outliers.

The sophomore slump for the actor is a curious disease. It is slightly different than for other artists. The actor may get a big break on a project and get some fame and fortune, and they need to follow this up. The biggest mistake actors make after getting some success, is that they think they are 'done', that they are a complete actor. They think they know everything about acting because they are famous or rich or working. The truth is, the best way to avoid the sophomore slump if you're an actor, is to keep working on your craft. You must constantly be on guard against complacency. If you are in a class, keep going. If you don't want to go to a class and deal with the politics and nonsense that can sometimes accompany them, then go to a private coach or teacher (…in other words, CALL ME!! Cuz that is what I do!!). The key is to remain confident yet humble, ambitious yet grounded. Realize that just because you have a job or fame or money, doesn't mean you've figured out acting…or life. It just means you have fame, money or a job. Keep working on getting better. You have to work as hard between project one and project two as you did between project zero and project one. Work, work, work. Hone your craft and your skill. Always be getting better. Once you think you have it figured out…you are creatively dead.

So, check out seasons one of "Derek" and "Orange is the New Black", but avoid season two. And please go to your local acting coach/teacher to get your vaccinations against the dreaded 'Sophomore Slump'. The artistic career you save, could be your own.