As a performer, Kerry Washington is particularly adept at conveying uptightness — her crispness of bearing and her rat-a-tat delivery suggest a certain passion for organization, for rigor. This was the ingredient that helped elevate “Scandal,” and the emotionally chaotic but professionally fastidious character of Olivia Pope. (And, incidentally, it’s the aspect that made Washington’s work as a free-spirited artist in “Little Fires Everywhere” ring somewhat false.) Now, on the Hulu sitcom “UnPrisoned,” Washington’s back to the angle that suits her best — and at the heart of a sweetly intended show of disarming quality.
Here, Washington plays Paige, a relationship therapist whom viewers may not be shocked to learn hasn’t quite got herself figured out. Her tendency to dispense advice about fixing romantic partnerships (both to her patients and, we see, on social media) rubs up against the fact that she makes poor choices. We learn, gradually, about the role model she’s emulating in her own way: Her father, Edwin, newly released from prison, is at once astoundingly charismatic (no surprise, given that he’s played by Delroy Lindo) and someone with an entangled personal life. He moves in with her and her teenage son (Faly Rakotohavana), kicking off what will be a major reckoning for both parties. Soon enough, Paige’s desire for order — her need to project a sense of having it all together, even as that’s not quite true — becomes an impossibility.
Refreshingly, “UnPrisoned,” created by Tracy McMillan, treats Edwin’s incarceration as a fact, rather than a stain or stigma. It’s a fruitful approach for the show, because Edwin’s time behind bars created a set of circumstances to which everyone in his family had to react, but not because he is irredeemably bad. (Real-life perspective likely comes to bear on this story: McMillan has written about her own father’s prison sentence.) With that said, Edwin is indeed a vexed figure for Paige. His choices, after all, have set the template for Paige’s private turmoil, and his reentry is hardly seamless.
“UnPrisoned” excels when leaning into both leads’ complications, Paige’s alternately polished exterior and inner messiness as well as her father’s devilish charm that overlays real uncertainty about how to live his life post-prison. The proceedings are pleasantly shaggy. Plotlines feel loose and somewhat improvisational, befitting a show in which the protagonist derails a TED talk she’s delivering to speak extemporaneously about her family’s story. An occasional device that works less well is the introduction of Paige’s younger self, who speaks to her; we can understand that Paige is dealing with childhood traumas without quite this much help.
But the unruliness of the series adds to the sense that Paige’s world cannot possibly be as orderly as Washington makes us believe she’d like it to be. “UnPrisoned” asks us to follow a sort of double awakening: In the foreground, Lindo gives viewers a concentrated dose of charm even as his character comes to realize that he cannot use sweet talk as a shortcut to rebuilding his relationship with his daughter. But Paige is on a journey, too, and it’s one that Washington is unusually equipped to take us on. She is coming into consciousness that she can’t just talk her way past her problems — that the Instagram-ready exterior of her life is not one that’s been examined sufficiently. “UnPrisoned” brings her to the edge of that growth; she and her father deserve more seasons to show us where they end up.
“Unprisoned” will release all episodes on Hulu on Friday, March 10.
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