UnPrisoned isn’t a therapy show in the traditional sense — there are hardly any scenes featuring actual patients, for one — but it is deeply concerned with self-improvement and understanding. Questions about what it means to make the right choices (and what counts as “right”), the limits of forgiveness, and the effects of unresolved trauma cast a long shadow over the Hulu/Onyx Collective collaboration, which uses therapy as a lens through which to explore mass incarceration. This is a potent combination, and save for a few awkward moments, it’s one that succeeds on the back of layered performances from Delroy Lindo and Kerry Washington.
As the title card in each episode notes, UnPrisoned is “inspired by some truly crazy sh*t” in the life of creator and executive producer Tracy McMillan (Mad Men, The United States of Tara). Washington stars as Paige Alexander, a marriage and family therapist who struggles to put her advice into practice in her own life. Paige’s career and loving relationship with her 16-year-old son Finn (Faly Rakotohavana) are a direct response to the stressful events of her childhood: For most of her life, her father Edwin (Delroy Lindo) was in and out of prison, leaving Paige to move between the home of his girlfriend Nadine (Brenda Strong) and various foster families. Understandably, Paige harbors a great deal of resentment towards Edwin, but when he’s released from prison after 17 years and promises to get back on the straight and narrow, she reluctantly agrees to let him move in with her and Finn.
Much of UnPrisoned focuses on Edwin’s effort to stay true to his word — and for the first time, to live up to his daughter’s expectations of him — even as the world around him seems designed to keep him down. In one particularly infuriating scene, a restaurant manager reneges on a job offer after he learns Edwin has a felony conviction. Later, in the spectacular episode “Nigrescence,” Edwin travels to his Alabama hometown to retrieve his birth certificate so he can get a driver’s license, only to discover that in order to obtain the document, he must first show a photo ID.
Another series about adjusting to life after prison might turn these obstacles into a righteous screed about a corrupt system that promotes recidivism over rehabilitation, but UnPrisoned isn’t that show. While McMillan and showrunner Yvette Lee Bowser (Living Single) have a clear stance on the criminal justice system — you won’t find any heroic police officers or pro-law and order attitudes here — Edwin’s struggles are always presented as uniquely his own. His story may be representative of the difficulties faced by millions of formerly-incarcerated people, but his complicated relationship with Paige, and the specific ways in which they’ve hurt and been hurt by each other, are deeply personal.
Lindo, too, never loses sight of the singularity of Edwin’s arc. For much of the season, he plays Edwin with a calm swagger, as if he’s cruising above these indignities, but it’s clear his frustration is bubbling up under the surface. When it eventually boils over in “Nigrescence,” he briefly complains about the system at large (“Why did they let me out if they’re going to do me like this?!” he mutters under his breath) before expressing a more pressing concern: Without a driver’s license, he can’t make enough money to repair Paige’s roof. Lindo’s decades of experience are on full display here. His grief and helplessness are so palpable that when Edwin has an emotional breakthrough later in the episode, it wallops the viewer.
Washington, who serves as an executive producer alongside Lindo, takes on a similar load. Paige openly discusses her relationship with her father on Instagram, where she’s become something of a self-help influencer, analyzing their interactions through a therapeutic perspective. But even as she addresses her “mother wound” and her habit of “repetition compulsion” — “a very fancy psychological term for when you keep doing the same sh*t over and over again, even when you think you are doing different sh*t” — UnPrisoned never suggests Paige has all the answers (or any answers, for that matter).
By not expecting her to solve her own problems, McMillan and Bowser free Paige to embrace the journey and make mistakes along the way. This lends a certain lightness to Washington’s performance and allows her to experiment with the many facets of the character. Many of the excursions into Paige’s psyche are effective, including a relationship with Edwin’s case worker Mal (Marquise Richardson, Dear White People) that prompts her to interrogate why she struggles to accept love from a kind and unproblematic man.
Others are less successful: Paige often sees visions of her younger self (played by Jordyn McIntosh), who encourages her to be a self-advocate, while also reinforcing her feelings of victimhood. These scenes are meant to remind us that we cannot move forward without first acknowledging the past, but there’s so much of that elsewhere in the series — from Paige’s Instagram Live monologues to Edwin’s personal history — that McIntosh’s appearances feel redundant, even if it is charming to see Washington and her mini-me wearing identical outfits.
But UnPrisoned’s greatest strength may be its ability to package its examination of post-prison life and psychoanalysis into a half-hour comedy format. Despite the subject matter, the show never feels heavy — and it even squeezes in a few laugh-out-loud moments, as when Paige describes a gender reveal as a “sex party.” UnPrisoned understands that becoming a better person is a messy, nonlinear affair, but these moments of humor function as a reminder that it isn’t all doom and gloom. There’s something joyous to be found in the process; you just have to be open to discovering it.
All eight episodes of UnPrisoned premiere Friday, March 10 on Hulu. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.
TOPICS: Unprisoned, Hulu, Delroy Lindo, Kerry Washington, Tracy McMillan, Yvette Lee Bowser , Onyx Collective