UnPrisoned review: Delroy Lindo is so good it should be illegal
Is there a more charismatic actor working today than Delroy Lindo? In Yvette Lee Bowser's tender new comedy UnPrisoned, the towering 70-year-old stars as Edwin Alexander, a freshly released felon in Minneapolis. His estranged daughter, Paige (Kerry Washington), agrees to pick him up at his transitional housing building, but she won't give him a place to stay. Edwin flashes a smile at his worried parole officer, Mal (Marque Richardson). "What my daughter doesn't know is that I'm out for good this time."
Lindo packs a lifetime of backstory in those two words: "for good." The phrase, delivered in the actor's buttery-smooth baritone, conveys years of chances given and promises broken; it tells us all we need to know about why Paige looks at her daddy with a mixture of fear and deep longing. Lindo's pure, uncut magnetism makes Eddie a man we can't help but follow. Inspired by the life of TV writer and relationship author Tracy McMillan, UnPrisoned is a welcome showcase for Lindo and a touching family comedy about the generational cost of mass incarceration.
Marriage and family therapist Paige Alexander begins most of her days by going live to share some (plot-related) life coaching for her devoted Instagram followers. (Sample pep talk: "'Parent' and 'partner' are just one letter off. How you got parented is how you get partnered.") Despite her initial unwillingness to let Edwin back into her life, Paige — and the audience — knows her resolve won't last. "Your unconscious mind wants a do-over, and what it wants, it gets," she tells her fans, before agreeing to let Edwin move in with her and her 16-year-old son, Finn (Faly Rakotohavana). "Ultimately, what you really want is a healing."
As you may have guessed, UnPrisoned is a take on the "she's a therapist but her personal life is a mess!" TV template. It doesn't feel tired, though, because Paige is almost comically aware of why she keeps making the same mistakes with men in her life — be it her married boyfriend, Bill (Tim Daly), or Edwin, or the handsome and single Mal, whose only flaw is that he's emotionally available — but that doesn't stop her from repeating them. Paige holds frequent confabs with her inner child (Jordyn McIntosh), and she loves herself some therapy-speak ("My amygdala is getting all kinds of activated!"). But for all her buzzwords, she cannot counter the incontrovertible truth in Edwin's real-talk analysis of her love life. "You are the side piece," he explains. "A man lies to his main bitch."
Of course, Edwin has his own destructive patterns to conquer, and UnPrisoned chronicles the many roadblocks he faces as a Black man with a felony on his record. "I need a legit job, son," Edwin tells Finn. "And I can't get that without a social security card. And I can't get that without a driver's license — and I can't get that without a birth certificate." So, Edwin, Paige, and Finn take a trip down to Union Springs, Alabama to retrieve that needed birth certificate. The episode's title, "Nigresence," foreshadows the discoveries Paige and her son make about the generational trauma that set Edwin up for a lifetime of struggle.
Lindo has a particularly lovely dynamic with his on-screen grandson, played with natural and endearing sweetness by the angel-faced Rakotohavana. While Washington doesn't always seem at ease in a comedic role, she's amusing and relatable as the high-strung straight man to Lindo's sangfroid charm. And shame on me for waiting this long to mention Brenda Strong as Edwin's regal and randy ex, Nadine; she and Lindo have more sexual chemistry than all the couples on The CW combined.
The eight-episode season follows a fairly predictable path, and some of Paige's flights of fancy play more silly than funny. (Her chats with "Little Paige" largely work, though, because McIntosh is such a fierce little comedian.) Quibbles aside, UnPrisoned is the type of show that's still a rarity on TV: An intimate, heartfelt comedy about one family's piece of the Black experience. Grade: B+
UnPrisoned premieres Friday, March 10 on Hulu.
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