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Talk Amongst Yourselves: Orange Is the New Black

July 29, 2013


Netflix has arrived for real, getting Emmy nominations last week for it’s first original series, House of Cards. (How long did it take HBO to get in that gate? I’m sure there’s been a few water cooler talks starting with “back in MY day….”). I liked HoC, mostly because of Robin Wright and her character, though the plot got a little shakey by the end so I worry for the 2nd season. Then came Hemlock Grove which was so bad it made me SO ANGRY, though I stupidly watched the whole thing just to see if they’d fix or improve anything (spoiler: they didn’t). Of course there was the much anticipated new season of Arrested Development which also didn’t do it for me – I watched a marathon of it one weekend while puttering around when I had the house to myself, and for some reason after episode 9, my player decided to jump to the final episode and I hit play and didn’t realize the mistake until AFTER THE SHOW WAS OVER. The ‘style’ of the season was to basic show every scene from 5 different angles when it was only kinda funny the second, the plot was drawn out and beat to death, and so I seriously didn’t notice at all that I’d managed to watch the finale in the middle. That sums it up a few of the show’s problems.

Then along came Orange Is the New Black. I was nervous, because Weeds made me angry, but I still had hope, plus I felt like I had to tune in to one of the few instances on television when a trans actor plays a trans character. Shocking! The episode was meh, because it was mostly about Blondie (aka Dandelion aka Piper) but it had enough juice to get me to keep going. So I came for Laverne Cox, but I stayed for Uzo Aduba, Kate Mulgrew, Lea DeLaria, Natasha Lyonne, Michelle Hurst, got won over by Laura Prepon and newcomers Yael Stone and Dascha Polanco, and managed to ignore Jason Biggs (he did serve a purpose, in a way).

We watched all 14 episodes in approximately 6 days. Then I wanted to talk about it! The show has problems, but they are compelling ones, and there are so many good parts mixed in, too. But the one problem with streaming is that people watch shows at a different pace – I mean, that’s kinda true of all TV now, but it’s just extra with a Netflix series. So I’ve been gobbling up think-pieces and looking for people on social media who also got reeled in. Here’s a list of the best articles I’ve come across so far – warning, they have SPOILERS. And we’re going to have a comment discussion with SPOILERS. So if you haven’t seen it yet and you’re anti-spoiler, bookmark this page, sit down in front of a screen, and hit play – we’ll see you in 14 hours.

The first one I read was by Yasmin Nair from In These Times: White Chick Behind Bars.

Despite its many wrong notes with regard to race and ethnicity, it’s clear that Orange makes a conscious effort to only be “positive” towards racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities—even its sole trans character, Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox) is drawn sympathetically. But every show needs a villain, someone who can be completely cast out of its moral universe. A show bent on positive portrayals of people of color and queers must then look elsewhere for its true villain. Enter Tiffany Doggett, (Taryn Manning), also called Pennsatuky—a mash-up of “Pennsylvania” and “Kentucky”—the prison’s resident “white trash” born-again Christian who’s also, tellingly, the only white woman whose naked body is turned fully to the camera’s gaze.

On the other end was Washington Post article calling it, “the best TV show about prison ever made.” The opening line about calling House of Cards a disappointment threw me, but they are a political wonk blog, so I can see why they’d have issues. There’s not a pithy quote to pull from it, because it’s essentially a point by point analysis of how the show gets a lot of the technical details of a minimum security prison right.

Salamishah Tillet at The Nation published a piece that sort of lands in the middle of it: It’s So Not Oz.

The series begins with the privileged perspective of Kerman and slowly but surely, with each episode, I became more invested in stories of women we normally do not “see”: queer and straight women of color and working class women. So, I will be back next season with hopes that the show provides the “agency” to these women…and a more sustained argument about why they (as opposed to Piper Kerman) have so few life choices and are routinely victims of racially and socio-economically biased legal system.

Blackademic Dr. Kortney Ryan Ziegler wrote a great piece specifically on the black trans narrative that I appreciated.

Although OITNB treads the line of racial stereotype, the show is redeemed by the ways in which it depicts female sexuality. For the most part, all of the women in the prison are represented as having control of their sexuality despite their reality of incarceration. Whether they are sneaking into chapels to fuck, risking solitary confinement for a mind shattering screwdriver induced orgasm, or rejecting the advances of lovestruck but dangerous cellmates, the women are consistently shown with some semblance of sexual agency. The character of Sophia [Laverne Cox] is no different.

Last week it was also released that OITNB is doing waaaaay better than House of Cards or Arrested Development in terms of audience numbers, even as a ‘no-name show‘. Oops!

So many smart people writing about this show, it’s intimidating to chime in, but there’s still things I haven’t seen talked about! Like how the depiction of the NPR radio story w/ Piper’s fiance perfectly shows unabashed NPR fans why exactly people hate NPR shows. (Fyi, there is not a real Maury Kind on NPR, he’s totally made up.)

Also, I really love Suzanne aka Crazy Eyes. I want more articles on her.

What’s your take on OITNB? Let’s process! We gotta do something to kill time until season two is here. Also, I heard the book is terrible, did anyone read the book?

25 Comments leave one →
  1. July 29, 2013 8:45 am

    Last night on facebook someone posted that Laura Prepon is a scientologist and there was a collective groan through the comments as so many boners deflated.

    But here’s more great stuff on Laverne Cox!

  2. kia576 permalink
    July 29, 2013 9:29 am

    I’m not very well versed about Scientology but I guess its only ok to be gay if there is a paycheck attached?

  3. July 29, 2013 9:32 am

    LOLOLOL. oh snap.

  4. aliciamaud permalink
    July 29, 2013 10:04 am

    The OITNB NPR barb stung, because I actually had to google to see if Maury Kind is a real host, since his depiction was so real. I went through a little “Oh, have I listened to this show? This seems like a show I would listen to. Crap. *headsmack* This seems like a show *I* would listen to.” I was even wearing a cardigan at the time, though it wasn’t as nice as any of Jason Biggs’.

    I don’t think I could read the book, since it’s written by “Piper”, and what my OITNB experience does NOT need is more Piper. However, I could really use more Suzanne. I was a little wary about her character at first–I was afraid they were going to lean to heavily on disastrous mental illness tropes and/or she was going to be the ‘craaaazy people are the real sages’ character. There was a little of that (though how much of a sage do you have to be to know Dandelion isn’t a nice person?) but they let her get much more nuanced than I expected, and I was disappointed she didn’t get a backstory episode of her own. When she asked Piper why people call her Crazy Eyes, that was a gut wrencher. Also, when she cried over the public radio show–at first I thought she was just ashamed of being made into a joke, but after the confrontation in the bathroom, I re-read that as also being laced with disappointment about hoping Piper was more/better/kinder than she actually was, which was really relatable.

  5. July 29, 2013 10:11 am

    I felt the exact same way with Suzanne, though I did love her from the second she was introduced (she felt very real to me, I’ve met someone like her), and she was made a little bit into a joke right away, at least through Piper’s eyes, but then they definitely redeemed her by giving more three-dimensionality. But I really want her backstory! I hope that comes next season.

    Agree with the book too – though the Amazon reviews make me laugh when everyone comments on how she mentions being a Smith grad A LOT.

  6. aliciamaud permalink
    July 29, 2013 10:18 am

    I’m kind of interested in the nature of the crimes in the show. There seems to be a sort of continuum—the WOC are in prison for acts of self-preservation, or sacrificing themselves for someone else. I think we’re meant to have compassion for them and the decisions they made. Meanwhile, the crimes of the white men (which of course they aren’t being punished for) are all about gaining/exercising/abusing power that they already have, for personal gain, and maintaining the system that creates the situations in which the women of color have to do more self-preservation. That cycle is pretty interesting to see on screen, and I’m kicking around where Piper, Alex, Pennsatawky, and Figueroa fit in to that spectrum.

    I don’t have sympathy for any of their crimes, but their power grabs didn’t work out for them like they have for Pornstache, Healey, etc.

  7. aliciamaud permalink
    July 29, 2013 10:20 am

    Ooh, I will look at the reviews. (:

  8. July 29, 2013 10:24 am

    What appeals to me is, of course, all the marginalized voices, who are normally barely visible in “civilian” and rendered completely invisible in jail, and hoping they will be honestly and complexly rendered. I am by no means expecting perfection. That said my beef is really : Why THIS story? I don’t care how delicately, thoughtfully or kindly black/queer/trans* pathology is rendered. It’s still another show that trafficks in pathology of ppl whose very humanity is taken for granted. I am troubled by cis white ppl telling me how great it is and knowing they haven’t bothered to consider this narrative is not exactly fresh new treatment of marginalized women. But you can’t take away their white girl cultural tourism…

    I want to love it. And I don’t even care if others do, but when we talk about wanting more visibility for often erased communities we need to be VERY careful about what stories we choose to tell. In 2013 w/ a black first family and we still telling “POCs are mean, hilarious, noble and cra in prison” stories we ought to be feeling a little weird about all the praise OITNB is getting and noting who is giving it.

    And if you’re a WOC hoping there’s a middle ground between Good Times and Scandal once again you’re going to be really bummed.

  9. July 29, 2013 10:33 am

    Sing it!

    Yeah, when I got done with the show, I felt like – well, nothing made me super angry, so hey, success! Ah, the danger of low expectations. I agree with Nair who stated that the show gets an A on queer stuff but a C on race stuff: C as in just average and nothing new as far larger story, just new moments and characters packaged in a familiar way in all the reasons you pointed out, Snarky.

  10. July 29, 2013 11:02 am

    I am very curious to see how things will shake out during season 2 of OITNB. I’d like to believe some narrative choices were made in part b/c of the limited amount of time to tell the story they wanted to tell. It’s not an excuse but I’m not gonna act like you can tell a big nuanced examination of race gender class sexuality in a small number of eps.

    You mentioned HoC. Having watched the original I feel dirty and cheated watching the remake. I love Kevin but he is WRONG for the part. Robin is PERFECT. Especially if the series travels a similar path as the original.

    That said it must smart a little that a no name show is blowing a $100mil show out of the water. Even I can admit OITNB is a far more entertaining option than any other NF show, including Lilyhammer.

  11. Angie permalink
    July 29, 2013 11:06 am

    I watched this show (twice!) and saw it as a companion piece to Weeds, because Nancy never had much soul and almost no conscience. Piper Chapman is a similar character to me, her insistence that she did almost nothing wrong, did it once and ten years ago is one of her huge fictions, and I hate her fiance too but I like the way they look at their son and see Piper as the pretty blond girl he can’t believe he got to fuck, and he could do better and they are hoping he does. Jenji Kohan has something to say about whiteness and criminality, maybe that maintaining white privilege is criminal. LOVE Uzo Aduba, Samira Wiley, and Kate Mulgrew. I thought Pensetucky was getting a decent deal until the last episode, then she became an evildoer with the blood in the bathroom and the murdering. Bonus I think she will get new teeth. I think we will get more on prison for profit in the next season.

  12. aliciamaud permalink
    July 29, 2013 11:12 am

    That was part of my hesitancy to watch beyond ep 1, @Snarky’s Machine. I started to HATE Weeds after the 2nd season because I resented being expected to sympathize with this self-involved, privileged white lady who because of all these circumstances out of her control (basically her unwillingness to get a freaking job) had to come in contact with all these scaaaary black people! and Mexicans! and of course they were all drug dealers! and they made her drop her iced latte! Ugh. And the first episode of OITNB made it clear this was going to be the same deal, basically (but now with gratuitous lesbian shower sex!) It’s annoying that Piper provides the access to all those good stories, and has to be somehow in the center of them, when it seems pretty clear to me she’s mostly in the way of the best stuff. Piper and the prison setting are plot devices that tv really needs to get beyond.

    Spinoffs for Sophia, Claudette, and Daya with no mentions of prison, please?

  13. aliciamaud permalink
    July 29, 2013 11:14 am

    Good point re: Season 2. I already foresee a scene in which Pennsatucky tearfully thanks Piper for getting her new teeth after punching hers out in a rage. ):

  14. July 29, 2013 11:21 am

    Except Claudette might never have a life outside of prison. 😦 I’m actually a little worried that character got a raw deal ending to go with her raw deal story.

  15. July 29, 2013 11:25 am

    Yeah, I hated that they has to take Pennsetucky to that level in order to make it “okay” for Piper to beat the crap out of her. I wish she had maintained low-level annoyance and instigation, it would have been enough to initiate response and not let Piper off the hook as much by adding the ‘defending herself’ angle.

  16. aliciamaud permalink
    July 29, 2013 11:25 am

    Yeah, that was a huge bummer.

  17. July 29, 2013 11:47 am

    I watched the entire season in two days, and for two days straight I was saying, “I want to see more of Sophia and the nun!” I love the friendship that has sprung up between the two of them because each of their conversations seems to lead to actual character growth!

    The only thing that honestly perplexes me is the relationship between Daya and Bennett. I felt like there were scenes missing given the immediate tone of their conversations. I was convinced in the episode with Daya’s pre-prison life it was going to be revealed that they’d known each other on the outside. I’ve also read elsewhere that it feels as though the writers are playing Daya and Bennett as a straight up love story that we should be rooting for. As cute as he is, I can’t get behind the idea of the star crossed lovers because, you know…he’s her prison guard.

  18. July 29, 2013 12:03 pm

    Good point re: Season 2. I already foresee a scene in which Pennsatucky tearfully thanks Piper for getting her new teeth after punching hers out in a rage.

    I LOL’d not b/c I’m a monster but b/c yeah that’s exactly what I pictured happening too.

  19. Angie permalink
    July 29, 2013 12:34 pm

    It’s really watchable, but it makes me uncomfortable, both watching the show for my own enjoyment and the celebration of it. Like on facebook, how when Raymond wrote, let’s discuss, a few of the comments were about wanting to go to prison. Really? It is a television show and you don’t have to be political, that’s cool, but knowing this is the season’s hit show at the same time California prisoners are on hunger strike for basic things, it’s jarring. Orange really is the new black for some folks. I am scared to go to prison. Three family members including my dad went to prison. I don’t want to go.

  20. July 29, 2013 12:45 pm

    Yeah, a lot of people (mostly white dykes, that I’ve seen) have taken their love of the show a little far for my taste. I get that the L Word was disappointing and that OITNB is depicting queerness nicely, but hyperbole might not always be the best choice to properly express sexy feelings. And while OITNB might be getting minimum-security technically correct in many ways, that doesn’t mean all prison is the same (and in fact most of them aren’t). Also, we only lived in this sexy/funny/touching version for 13 hours, not even a whole real-time day.

  21. Angie permalink
    July 29, 2013 1:06 pm

    Well it is not easy to get a girlfriend! It does highlight that the women in prison genre remains titillating.

  22. July 29, 2013 2:39 pm

    Yes. The “it makes me want to go to prison” camp seems to be completely missing the point. It’s awkward and I’m seeing a lot for it. Fortunately it’s a statement that hangs in the air like a beefy fart and is about as well received.

  23. July 29, 2013 5:43 pm

    Well it is not easy to get a girlfriend!

    still LOLing about this.

  24. July 29, 2013 5:47 pm

    I know, right. I mean it just puts it right out there!!!

  25. July 30, 2013 12:50 pm

    It’s distressing that they aren’t trying to make Pennsatucky even a LITTLE bit sympathetic. I get that you have to have a villain (the prison system isn’t enough?) but the fact that it’s a white trash meth head bible banger with almost no redeemable qualities only adds to the Nice White Person Who Listens to NPR and Likes Beyonce’s fantasy world.

    I too am REALLY, REALLY hoping they flesh all of these characters (with the exception of Piper ((yawn)) out. All of the back story crimes were disappointing as well. Just not fleshed out enough. It was like a tease and sometimes like a day-old cookie thrown at you to give you the illusion of depth.

    I’m not sure I agree that the gay/queer issues are an A for me. I felt like they said, “Ok, we need a butch one, a sexy one, a “crazy” one, and dyed-in-the-wool one. That’ll do it.”

    That said…. I like it! I watched it in a binge and I really do want to see more. I like that there is a wide range of body types. Not perfect, no… but most shows seem to do real blossoming in the 2nd and 3rd seasons, so I’m holding on to hope.

    I have never finished the 1st season of Mad Men (got bored), but I think I’ll check out HoC!

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