Netflix’s Emmy-winning hit series Orange Is The New Black proved the limits of depicting the brutality of incarcerated life on-screen. Initially nuanced and compelling in its first three seasons, the show eventually descended into trauma-porn territory. By Season 3, the show had lost all of its laughs. (Legitimately, as it started competing in the Emmys as a drama). And the writers began integrating ripped-from-the-headlines storylines that were portrayed in a less than sensitive manner. (RIP Poussey!)
Almost four years out from OITNB’s final episode, a new Hulu series called UnPrisoned feels like a refreshing antidote to what that Netflix series ultimately became. The half-hour sitcom, a part of Hulu’s Onyx Collective, is more comparable to OITNB’s final season that saw Piper Chapman finally released from prison and struggling to adapt to her old life. UnPrisoned is ultimately more concerned with emotional violence caused by the criminal justice system and rifts it can create in families, a topic that deserves as much light as the more lurid aspects.
Created by Tracy McMillan—whose life the series is based on—Unprisoned follows the uneasy relationship between a high-strung therapist named Paige Alexander, played by Kerry Washington who also executive produces, and her wise-cracking father Edwin (Delroy Lindo), who’s just been released from a 17-year prison sentence.
On the surface, their dynamic reminds you of any normal bond between a charming, but occasionally inappropriate father and a daughter who lovingly puts up with his shenanigans. In one of the first scenes, in which Paige picks up Edwin from his correctional facility, you hardly notice any deep-seated tension between the two, as they sweetly poke fun at one another. However, as they start spending an abnormal amount together, we see the untreated cracks in the relationship.
Paige’s childhood trauma from her father’s incarceration is obviously the main focus. Her character’s franticness—as well her occupation—brings to mind Carrie Bradshaw (without the fabulous fashion, sadly). In every episode, she’s confidently dishing out advice to her followers on Instagram Live and spilling details about her predicament with her father.
While she’s good at firing off opinions, she struggles to internalize her own counsel. Such a messy and introspective depiction of a psychologist feels refreshing, especially embodied by a Black woman. If you’ve watched more than three shows over the past decade, you know we occupy a startling amount of shrink roles on television, mostly as omniscient aides to white patients.
Paige’s concerns, like Edwin’s casual fibbing and raunchiness—particularly around her teenage son Finn (Faly Rakotohavana)— are perfectly reasonable. And yet, there’s something about Edwin that tricks you into finding her complaints occasionally grating. If you’re tuned into a predominantly Black show about a formerly imprisoned Black man, you would hopefully find his character innately sympathetic. McMillan also grants Edwin an incredible sense of warmth and approachableness, as incarcerated people are viewed in society as anything but. This is only bolstered by Lindo’s winning presence as a performer.
Despite Washington and Lindo’s undeniable chemistry, the dynamic between Paige and Edwin is unfortunately where the show fails to keep you engaged. UnPrisoned was clearly designed as a light-hearted sitcom and manages to deliver on most of its laughs—primarily, thanks to Lindo and Brenda Strong, who plays his girlfriend, Nadine. However, it struggles to find a balance between its gags and the weighty issues bubbling at the surface.
At times, the tension between Paige and Edwin can feel stake-less. For the most part, squabbles between the father and daughter are resolved by the end of each episode. Furthermore, the trauma we see Paige battling with feels like it deserves a more rigorous, thorough approach. In particular, the moments where a younger version of herself (Jordan McIntosh) appears to give her pep talks feel like they belong in a more somber show.
That said, everything about UnPrisoned admittedly feels a bit off. The series lacks the sort of refined, concerted aesthetic (aside from a lot of earth tones) that one would expect from a streaming program in 2023. The odd music cues are also a bit distracting. Additionally, gags and risque dialogue feel a bit out of place for the show’s sweet tone. And yet, something about the energy between Washington and Lindo kept my eyeballs glued to the screen (and not just because it’s my job).
After watching all eight episodes, I found myself envisioning the two in a more fleshed-out father-daughter story, akin to Sofia Coppola’s On The Rocks. If one thing works about this show, it’s certainly them.
Liked this review? Sign up to get our weekly See Skip newsletter every Tuesday and find out what new shows and movies are worth watching, and which aren’t.