Kerry Washington is exceptionally skilled at portraying stiffness on stage; her stoic demeanor and rat-a-tat delivery convey a drive for structure and rigor. This was the key component that elevated “Scandal” and Olivia Pope’s emotionally erratic but meticulously organized persona.
(Incidentally, it’s the element that made Washington’s portrayal of a free-spirited artist in “Little Fires Everywhere” seem a little off.) Washington is back in the position that suits her best on the Hulu sitcom “UnPrisoned” and at the center of a show with good intentions but a disarming quality.
Washington plays the role of Paige, a relationship therapist who, viewers might not be surprised to hear, isn’t entirely sure of herself. As we can see on social media, her propensity to offer suggestions for mending love relationships to her patients collides with the reality that she makes bad decisions.
Gradually, we discover more about the person she is trying to emulate: Delroy Lindo portrays her father, Edwin, who has just been released from prison and is incredibly charismatic and has a complicated personal life. He moves in, starting a big reckoning for all parties, along with her adolescent son (Faly Rakotohavana).
It doesn’t take long for Paige’s demand for order to become impossible. She needs to appear to have everything under control, even when that’s not quite true.
Tracy McMillan’s “UnPrisoned” unusefully depicts Edwin’s imprisonment as a reality rather than a stain or disgrace. It’s a successful strategy for the show, not because Edwin is unredeemable evil but because his time in prison produced a set of conditions to which everyone in his family had to respond.
Paige does find Edwin to be a frustrating character. After all, his decisions laid the foundation for Paige’s inner anguish. Thus, his return is hardly smooth. The complexity of both leads—alternately Paige’s polished façade and inner messiness and her father’s devilish charm that hides genuine confusion about how to live his life after leaving prison—is where “UnPrisoned” really shines.
The activities are enjoyable and shaggy. Plotlines appear loose and a little improvised, fitting for a program in which the lead character interrupts a TED lecture she’s giving to speak impromptu about her family’s history.
We can understand that Paige is dealing with childhood traumas without quite this much help, so the odd device that introduces Paige’s younger self and speaks to her doesn’t work either.
Nonetheless, the series’ disorderliness reinforces the idea that Paige’s environment cannot possibly be as organized as Washington leads us to believe she would like it to be. We are asked to pursue a kind of double awakening in “Unprisoned”: As his character learns that he cannot use charm as a crutch to mend his relationship with his daughter, Lindo gives viewers a focused dosage of charm in the foreground.
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Yet Paige is also traveling, and Washington is uncommonly prepared to lead us on her adventure. She realizes that she cannot simply speak her way out of her troubles and that the Instagram-ready façade of her life has not been thoroughly investigated.
She reaches the peak of her development in “UnPrisoned,” but she and her father need further episodes to show us where they go.