Talk Amongst Yourselves: Orange Is the New Black
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?