I finished Orange is the New Black the other day. I wanted to write about it that week, but I thought I might go back and watch season one again first, just to be thorough (read: because I was really pissed that it was over and wanted more more more, dammit!). And then that didn’t happen because I went on a weird documentary bender. More about that soon. If you haven’t watched Orange is the New Black, you are missing out on a big fat heap of awesome, my friends.
A brief rundown: Piper Chapman is an average American young woman – early thirties, adorable boyfriend, lives in New York, runs a soap company with her best friend (a nod to Fight Club? Anybody? No? Is it just me?). Thing is, she’s a convicted felon. Her ex-girlfriend was a drug dealer and at some point Piper carried some money through customs for her, and the ex ratted on her. Such a low-class move. But Piper owned up to it and took the heat. The first episode is about her saying goodbye to her life and showing up at the penitentiary to serve a fifteen-month sentence. And then the madness begins. The whole premise of the show is that juxtaposition between a normal girl and a setting so outside her worldview. I think a lot of people from her social milieu would never expect to find themselves in prison (unless they’re perpetrating white collar crime), and honestly probably don’t think about prison that much at all (unless they’re lawyers). It’s a vaguely menacing, faraway thing. Like war or starvation or Detroit. This show is, essentially, about culture shock.
What I like about it most (besides the fact that it’s a Netflix original so doesn’t have to bend to the whims of any network bullshit – you go Netflix! Do you!) is the storytelling structure. Piper’s sort of Les Miserables-ish accidental felon situation is just the through-line, but there’s a huge cast of characters and in the tradition of prison culture, we do not ask what they’re in for. Each episode has flashbacks cut in between the main story, focusing on whichever character is most relevant to Piper’s plotline at the time, and one by one we get their backstories. But until that character has her individual episode, we don’t get any information about them. Only after her episode will she have explicit dialogue about her past. It’s very well done, and moves the present action along by showing us that character’s motivations or weaknesses, something that the people in the prison may not even know. There are a lot of “oh, shit, that changes everything!” moments.
So, I know what you’re thinking. “Hey, Vanessa, aren’t stories about women’s prisons usually porn?” Why, yes, that’s certainly a thing. They even address it in one episode directly, when Piper’s boyfriend does a radio interview with an Ira Glass-ish reporter. Because of the whole bisexual thing, I think, there’s some relationship tension that the reporter wants to address, asking about “women’s prison tropes.” Such excellent euphemizing. There’s definitely some sapphic action in the show, so if you’re delicate about that kind of thing you should keep your fast forward trigger finger at the ready. I think they’ve handled the prison sex issue pretty well, overall. While it does seem gratuitous at times, they’ve done well to avoid any porn-ish-ness. Because none of us can deny that that’s a thing that happens, right? Might as well be realistic. This would be a completely different conversation if we were talking about a show about men in prison, though, so there’s that.
See how I dodged that Insufferable Feminist soapbox just then? I don’t know who keeps leaving that thing laying around, but I’ve been tripping over it a lot lately. On the other hand: this is the part where I’m supposed to say “something something strong female characters.” And sure, fine, that’s totally true. But in a cast full of women, using that rings hollow as a compliment. What I like more than the characters being female is that they’re, each and every one, bad guys. Some worse than others, granted, but how many other shows can you think of where even the hero is a villain to some degree? I can count, off the top of my head, only maybe six characters who aren’t convicted felons and a couple of them are more villainous than the inmates, without question. It fucks with one’s perception of the generally accepted standard of good and bad. Holy bigger picture, man.
The idea of good and bad is changing. I don’t know if it’s our cultural climate in general, or the success of Breaking Bad, but lately we love a story about good people doing bad shit to get by, don’t we? What’s that about? Maybe it’s our shitty economy or whatever but I think there’s a lot of “just keep your head down and get through this” kind of stories popping up in America right now. Audiences can relate. Things are tough all over. You gotta do what you gotta do. Pick an aphorism. The bottom line is, if we paid teachers what they’re actually worth and/or (preferably “and”) had a functional universal health care system, Breaking Bad would never have happened. We’re breeding bad guys by making it hard for good people to make it. At some point I want to get my anthropologist friend to write a guest post about our prison system. Now would be the perfect time, but she’s busy this week going off to become a teacher so she can more actively participate in the elimination of the school-to-prison pipeline. Good on her. Thanks, buddy. Some other time, for sure. It’s interesting, terrifying stuff.
Anyway. If you’re into character-driven drama/dark comedy with shit tons of ladies being bad guys (and really, who isn’t?), check out Orange is the New Black. There are two seasons on Netflix so far, with one more due out next summer. Be warned: you will want to binge watch them all in one sitting. Remember to take breaks for showers and food and sleep, okay?