This week’s episode of the Bright Sessions introduces Frank Sawyer, voiced by Phillip Jordan, as an actual patient in Dr. Bright’s office. As usual, The Bright Sessions cements itself as one of the most impressive independent fiction podcasts in the industry, and the inclusion of Jordan in the cast continues the already impressive lineup of voice talent. Before diving into the discussion of Jordan’s performance in this episode, which will take up the bulk of this review, I want to touch on a few smaller details first. As a note, there are going to be some minor spoilers towards the end of the review. These spoilers will mostly discuss character moments instead of explicit story details.
While Frank was the clear focus of this episode, Morizawa’s performance was perfectly subtle and nuanced. Morizawa has always been one of the most impressive actors in the cast, but her ability to convey a wide emotional range while still maintaining Dr. Bright’s steadfast manner of speaking is incredible. In the beginning of the episode, it’s clear that Dr. Bright is navigating how to be respectful of this new patient while also trying to get information out of him. The writing for Dr. Bright blends seamlessly with Morizawa’s performance: as Dr. Bright asks Frank clearly investigative questions about his history, trying to gather more knowledge about the A.M., Morizawa voices the character’s caution and interest with only the smallest hints of anxiety. Morizawa easily shifts from Dr. Bright’s anxiety to her empathy, finally landing on almost crying along with Frank in a rare moment of vulnerability from Dr. Bright. At no point does Dr. Bright sound too cold or too emotional; Morizawa’s thorough knowledge of the character and impeccable acting make Dr. Bright a perfectly understated background for Jordan’s center-stage performance.
It also seems like Shippen has some experience with veterans or has really done her research with her character. Veterans aren’t painted as war criminals or as absolute heroes; they’re multi-faceted, with aspects of heroism and aspects of horror. Frank having frustration with being put on a pedestal for his service is something I’ve heard from every veteran I’ve spoken to, and the dissonance between that and Frank being looked down upon as a homeless person is a contrast that’s written elegantly here.
This episode was a good reminder of how many risks The Bright Sessions takes in production and how well they pay off. With an episode featuring two serious, quiet actors, the lack of bed music becomes more prominent. there are plenty of shows that use non-diegetic music to help create the tone of the episode or add suspense, and it works very well (The Magnus Archives comes to mind here). The lack of any background music is risky when you’re only depending on acting to carry tone. The production’s faith in the acting is such a wise choice with this show. Any music would absolutely detract from the actors, and it’s a refreshing reminder that the medium can and should be altered in whatever way suits the show best.
With those notes squared away, I want to focus on Phillip Jordan’s acting, which was by and far what made this episode so fantastic.
While we’ve had moments of Frank in episodes before, this was his first episode as the centerpiece, and Jordan’s performance was perfect for carrying an episode as a quiet, respectful character. The Bright Sessions’s writing can sometimes come across a little too scripted and formal, falling into the Dialogue Authenticity Podcast Problem I’ve written about before. Early in the episode, this is an absolute non-issue for Frank and, if anything, actually lends itself well to the character and Jordan’s performance. Frank is believably as formal a character as he’s written, and Jordan acts him with a phenomenal mixture of deference and softness. Even when he’s speaking logistically, Frank never sounds anything other than warm and kind. Jordan’s voice here, even just in timbre, is a perfect fit for a character who is both a veteran and an artist.
As the episode progresses, though, the writing actually falls behind Jordan. As Frank goes from quiet to upset to distraught, Jordan’s acting shifts effortlessly between the emotions while the writing remains overly formal and scripted. When the two do match up in tone, it makes for some of the most beautiful moments we’ve heard from the show–Frank asking Dr. Bright, “Why did you get scared all of a sudden?” humanizes him immediately, and Frank croaking through a pained”I don’t deserve it” had me tearing up as I listened. The problem is that within a few lines, the writing has Frank back to his even-keeled, logical demeanor. Jordan does the best he can to make Frank’s transition through emotions natural, but Jordan is not given the time and space he needs to make Frank feel well-rounded and believable in these moments. He carries the writing, but it was frustrating to hear him so tethered to something he seemed to know was rushed.
What’s incredible about this is that the writing is not bad in this episode. The writing is very, very good. Phillip Jordan’s performance is just that impressive.
It seems that there’s a firm grip on the scripts with The Bright Sessions, but it’s become perhaps a bit more lenient with time. Julia Morizawa and Briggon Snow seem to have been given a little more freedom with their lines (unless they’ve just settled into their characters so much that their dialogue sounds natural enough to trick me which, honestly, I wouldn’t really be shocked by), and hopefully Phillip Jordan will be given the same. He’s clearly proven his abilities in the span of this episode, and I can’t even imagine how impeccable his performance would be if he had more freedom in it.
You can listen to today’s (3/15/17) episode of The Bright Sessions, “34 – Frank,” on any podcast platform, on thebrightsessions.com, or on YouTube.
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