“The Ordeal” brings Blindspotting to the small screen with all the wit, intelligence, and resistance to conformity that made its big-screen brethren a contemporary classic.
This recap of Blindspotting season 1, episode 1, “The Ordeal”, contains spoilers.
Hopping the media transom is never easy but shrinking a feature film down to small-screen proportions always seems particularly challenging. A deliberately niche and difficult to classify movie like Carlos López Estrada’s Blindspotting seems especially tough to translate and doing so seems like a terrible idea on paper. That film, an Oakland-set indie dramedy, was so good (my favorite of 2018) that touching it feels almost sacrilegious, even if its scribes and stars Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal return on writing duties for this new version, which is airing on Starzplay and Amazon Prime for the next two months.
But it turns out Diggs and Casal have a knack for this, whatever the medium. The fingerprints of both are all over the script of Blindspotting episode 1, “The Ordeal”, and the face of the latter shows up in several scenes, once again as his slightly unhinged career criminal character Miles, even if focus naturally shifts to his long-suffering girlfriend Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones) and their son, Sean, when Miles is arrested for drug possession and faces a hefty stint in jail.
This is all taking place a few months after the film’s end, and immediately resumes its whip-smart writing and balancing-act tone, halfway between outright comedy and serious drama. Ashley and Miles have an unusual relationship – he’s a proven liability; she seems undeterred by this – that is brought across best by their casual familiarity with the situation. “I’m not going to summer camp, baby, I’m going to jail,” is the kind of thing someone would say if they were very used to going to jail and leaving their doting girlfriend behind, which Miles is. As such, he has a pretty good plan for her and Sean while he’s away – move in with his eccentric mother Rainey (Helen Hunt) and hostile half-sister, Trish (Jaylen Barron), which comes with its fair share of problems, only the most obvious of which – Trish resents Ashley for taking her brother out of the hood, and is running a something close to a strip club in the house – are brought up in “The Ordeal”.
Despite spending so much time on setup, Blindspotting season 1, episode 1 proves itself as arresting and potentially powerful as its big-screen brother. The most powerful moment of the film, during which Daveed Diggs raps directly to the camera, is repurposed here in a couple of effective instances; when Ashley visits Miles in jail, all his fellow prisoners stand tall and raise a hand to the security glass in solidarity as she leaves. Scenes like this can’t help but highlight some of the artifice, but the show, like the film, has so many lived-in details in its texture that it can afford some flexibility in its construction. It plays with genre just as capably as it plays with inner-city stereotypes and hot-button political issues, always finding illuminating new angles for age-old debates. It blends social critique and commentary with gags; authentic detail with artsy flourish. The apotheosis of all this is a late scene in which an argument between Trish and Ashley steeped in classism gives way to a sideshow that threatens to become an outright song-and-dance number.
Few shows can do any of these things at all. “The Ordeal” does them all at once. That surely bodes well.