End of Season Report: Orange is the New Black

5 Aug

Orange Is Indeed the New Black

Orange is the New Black largely lived up to the hype.  I’m not quite ready to declare it a great show, but it’s certainly a quite good one, and one that better than any show that I can think of in recent times carefully weaves its web in the narrow spaces between comedy and drama.

In fact, what makes Orange is the New Black successful is its placement at the crossroads of comedy and drama. If it were further down on the drama end of TV’s tone spectrum, the show wouldn’t really work.  The light moments would seem inappropriate, improbable, and feel forced.  The occasionally cartoonish behavior of some of the characters would be hard to fathom, and the sense of humor which pervades Orange is the New Black isn’t the type that would transfer well to a serious show, like The Sopranos or The Wire, shows which are both funny but not silly.

If this show would farther on the comedy end of the TV’s tone spectrum, it wouldn’t really work either.  While it’s funny, in the sense that you watch it and say to yourself occasionally, “that was funny,” it’s not laugh out loud funny like Parks and Recreation or New Girl, and the dramatic subject matter and deep bonds generated between the woman in prison along with the actual gravity of their situation – prison is real, and not a joke – would be under-served by the excess humor.  Too much humor would obscure the legitimate terror Piper and the other women occasionally feel in the prison at the mercy of male guards who can be almost as vindictive as they like.

Prison is both real and absurd in the world of Orange is the New Black; it’s both a terrible, restrictive, and scary place to be and a place in which women have to manage to get by day to day, and the mix between drama and comedy suits that contrast so well.  The girls fight constantly but also stick by each other in difficult situations.  People form deeply meaningful individual relationships and get into petty squabbles.  These women aren’t just criminals who don’t have any natural home in civilian society; they’re people like you and me who made bad decisions when put in difficult situations.  While, as in real prison, the inmates are disproportionately poor and minorities, Piper is the representative for the middle class college-educated white twenty-to-forty something which is one of the prime demographics for Orange is the New Black.  People from any walk of life can make one boneheaded mistake and end up in prison.

A couple of quick notes on qualms with the show. I love the lightness and the girls working together; but occasionally the show pushes too far into whimsy for my taste.  The pageant in the final episode offered some great moments, but the notion that of course the one prisoner who had been silent up to that point saves the day with her surprisingly great voice was a little bit too Glee for me; because it’s part-comedy I’m willing to cut a lot of slack, but come on.  I like Pornstache a lot as a villain (and the great name Pornstache) , and he offers some of the best lines, but there are two problems here.  First, I get he’s an asshole, but does he really have to be so ridiculously stupid that he thinks he’s in love with Daya?.  It offers some funny moments, sure, but I think something’s lost in having a show fully of generally intelligent characters have someone just cartoonishly stupid rather than at least simply regular stupid.  Second, it’s a little bit disappointing overall that while the prisoners are portrayed with such complexities, the guard characters get a surprising lack of depth.  I understand it’s a show about the prisoners first and foremost, but a little more development wouldn’t hurt.  The prisoners, who are criminals, are largely decent people who made mistakes – are the guards all one-sided villains?

Secondly, I think the show pushes a bit too hard to make sure we know almost everyone in jail is objectively a good person, no matter how long they’ve been in prison.  The show chooses to do this with the aid of extremely sympathetic flashbacks which show the main prisoner characters and how they get to where they are now, which is prison.  These flashbacks inevitably portray this behavior in a favorable light; even if they did something wrong, they did it for an understandable reason which we can empathize with.  I think the writers were possibly afraid they couldn’t convince us that prison is loaded with pretty good people if the acts that led them there weren’t relatable, otherwise I’m not sure why they felt this was necessary.  In today’s world of complicated television (and, you know, real life), we have the mental machinery to compute that people who did bad things and made mistakes could be good people at heart. After all that’s where Piper stands and if the show thinks we can’t at least figure out that if Piper’s a pretty decent person, even though she made some mistakes, there’s a good chance some of these other women in prison are also, then the show needs to have a little more faith in itself or the viewers.

Overall, though, I don’t need to spend any more time working on what’s wrong with a show that’s such an enjoyable watch.  I plowed through the episodes, often wanting to start a new one just as a finished the previous, no matter what time it was.

I think the show does a very good job overall in displaying the difficulties in maintaining Piper and Larry’s relationship throughout her prison sentence, and blame for its struggles is apportioned all around.  She is the one with the far more difficult situation, obviously, but he didn’t sign up for this when he entered into a relationship with her.  It’s hard to really gin up sympathy for Larry until Piper decides to take up again with Alex, her ex, but that’s such a big deal that it takes a lot of the weight off Larry’s primary transgression (in terms of the relationship anyway; he can be irritating in some scenes outside of prison, like when he’s complaining to a bartender that he’s kind of but not quite hitting on), which is writing about Piper’s prison experiences without her permission.  That’s pretty bad, but her getting together with Alex is a pretty big stab in the heart as well.  In this writer’s subjective opinion, it’s one thing for Piper to cheat on Larry only in terms of sex while in prison, it’s another entirely when it’s with a woman she was in a long-term relationship with previously.  Either way, it’s clearly a topic they should have seriously discussed earlier. These escalating tensions lead to Larry calling off the engagement by the end of the first season, but at least for me, it was a slightly less emotional moment than it probably was intended to be because it seems inevitable that the two of them will reconcile, though maybe the show will surprise me.

After the first few potential villains for Piper become if not friends, people who seem to be able to at least occasionally see eye-to-eye with her, she does get a nemesis eventually in Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett, and she is well, an idiot, and a character who is hard to sympathize with and who is well, wrong, in just about everything she does., The last scene is of the first season is particularly shocking, but I still felt little sympathy for Pennsatucky; all I felt was “Shit, Piper’s going to get in trouble big time for this one.”  Piper’s impulse control is extremely limited and it’s a problem.  Several times during the show she makes impulsive decisions which get her in to trouble, in situations where she may not wrong, but in which her response is not the best one at the time.  To paraphrase the Dude, sometimes you’re not wrong Piper, you’re just as asshole.  Her sense of entitlement is both a frequent source of humor and of irritation.  While I likely sympathize with it more than many, because I’m afraid I’d act the same way, sometimes I just want to shake her and tell her shut the fuck up.

What makes Orange is the New Black succeed most of all is the love and complexity it imbues its characters with and its impressive ability to display the seemingly obviously truism that  people aren’t usually all right or all wrong, but are usually a little of both. I’m not sure what the natural next phase is for the show’s second season but I’m looking forward to it.

Lastly, the theme song began to grate after watching several episodes in a short period of time; I’m on the first half of this argument, especially since I have a personal policy of never skipping a theme song, no matter how many episodes are watched in a row.

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