July 29, 2013
I Think I Might Be the Only Person in the World Who Doesn’t Really Like Orange is the New Black
All right, I'll admit it: I just don't get Orange is the New Black. I watched three or four episodes the weekend it came out and have made my way through three or four more in the intervening weeks, waiting for it to become addictive, delightful-- even just plain old entertaining. At first I avoided spoilers and then I started reading reviews, hoping that someone else's positive opinion would rub off on me and help me to see whatever I was missing. It didn't take. I'm twenty minutes into the eighth episode and I can't imagine I'll ever get much farther. I just... I just don't like it.
I understand all of the arguments for why it's important: the show goes inside of a women's prison and gives us a reasonably realistic sense of what goes on there day-to-day, the extraordinarily mundane details of what's often sketched as a terrifying and awful place. It asks well-heeled viewers to sympathize with a class of people we tend to dismiss or ignore; it has aspirations, the show, I will certainly give it that. All things considered, of course I'd rather have Orange is the New Black than another vapid show about mean housewives or devious maids or whatever. Because OitNB also passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. It puts women on screen-- women of color, even-- and puts them at the center of its narrative, of all of the different kinds of stories it's telling.
it doesn't always succeed in those aspirations though, or tell those stories as thoughtfully as it could. Yasmin Nair has a great piece at In These Times about the way the show fails to reimagine, question or even adequately discuss the class system in America, how different it is to be an inmate like the putative protagonist, Piper Chapman, who can go home to her fiancee when her sentence is up, from being an inmate like Taystee, who leaves only to come back again, finding the outside world punishingly, impossibly tough without any support system at her back. As Nair points out, the show congratulates Chapman for recognizing that her choices landed her in prison without ever examining the stories of women for whom there were no other choices, not in any real sense.
And that's where we come to my real problem with Orange is the New Black: in its attempt to humanize each of the prisoners the show comes off like a heavy-handed morality tale. Everyone's bad behavior-- which is to say their crimes, which range from Piper's fairly minor carrying a suitcase of cash to more serious drug trafficking, and even murder-- is basically excused by the fact that they all had their feelings hurt by someone at one point or another. Rather than pointing out structural racism and inequality, the broken educational system, etc. ad nauseum, the point of the show really does seem to be that these women wanted to fit in and failed to, that they made mistakes so that one person or another would like them better, or because they'd realized that that person would never like them anyway so eff it, who cares.
That could be an interesting narrative thread, the way women assimilate the constant cultural demand that they be liked and likeable, if the show wasn't swimming in such deep waters already. Instead it flattens perspective and renders each characters' dramas more or less the same: it's all a matter of recognizing ourselves in these women, and producing the correct emotional response. The show either catches you or doesn't. It leaves me very cold. Piper is an unlikeable heroine but she's also not an interesting one; her character's complexity is, essentially, that she realizes she's not as nice as she always thought she was. The rest of the show is about how everyone else is nicer than you think they are.
And I'm not terribly interested in nice, I'm afraid, especially in a theoretically groundbreaking show about women and their stories. I've met enough nice girls, on-screen and elsewhere. I wish the show was confident enough in itself to show us their nastiness, to give them the possibility of being complicated and seductive and still basically broken or bad. Orange is the New Black has no bite to it; it renders prison too familiar, too safe, in an effort to make it relatable. It has plenty of feeling but no real drama, which I think is a shame, especially since it's a show about women, who get to talk about their feelings already, and plenty.