The men are portrayed as comically irrelevant — most are either sleazy idiots or amusingly oafish and dithering — and this is refreshing given the phallocentric alpha-male angst that has been TV fodder so often before.
By Matt Hanson
Since the breakthrough of The Sopranos, critics of the TV ‘renaissance’ have nothing but praise for the auteurism of such all-powerful showrunners as David Chase and Matthew Weiner. The fact that highbrow TV is re-appropriating this manner of artistic control from cinema is fine, but the cultural back-slapping is somewhat questionable. The showrunners who are typically given awards, reviewer plaudits, and are (often rightfully) hailed as geniuses are also almost entirely white, middle-aged men. It’s about time for women to start playing a larger role in writing and producing smart, engaging TV. In this sense, Jenji Kohan’s Orange Is The New Black, the quirky ensemble dramedy series now two seasons old on Netflix, sets the stage for the much needed evolution of long-form TV dramas.
Based on the witty memoir by Boston’s own Piper Kerman, the show takes the book’s concept – a nice, affluent white girl gets involved with the wrong people and spends a year in a woman’s prison – and adds a rich blend of characters into the mix. The story would dry up fast if it only concerned itself with how a woman like Piper gets by in prison; the book is fun and insightful, but not terribly hefty or dark. Instead, Kohan (also the creator of the hit series Weeds) made the wise choice to expand on the book’s most provocative characters and then add more.
The enormous ensemble cast teems with individually distinct racial, economic, and gender attributes that add welcome complexity to the narrative. Also to its credit, Orange Is The New Black not only keeps tabs on more characters than most popular TV shows have ever dared, but makes them consistently interesting through flashbacks, the backstories illustrating how each character got to where he or she is. It’s an interesting narrative device that pays off, given that we are initially introduced to the inmates of the prison before we know very much about them.
There’s Galina “Red“ Reznikoff, the sturdy Russian woman who stubbornly runs her corner of the cafeteria. She pines for the old family restaurant in New York which she doesn’t realize that she’ll never see again. There’s quite a few interesting Latina characters, as well, which is far more than most other popular TV dramas can claim. This line-up includes “Miss Rosa” Cisneros, who has a fondness for robbing banks. She is slowly dying of cancer but refuses to let her malady define her or end her lust for life. Rosa rages against the dying of the light in ways that are admirably tenacious yet also kind of odd, which fits the show’s jittery tone.
Uzo Aduba contributes a breakout performance as Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren, one of the show’s sui generis African American characters. Aduba brings a Shakespearean vitality to the manic, schizoid figure, who is more than a little nuts, to be sure, thereby providing plenty of entertainment. But we also learn over time just how profoundly isolated and insecure she is, and how easily manipulated her raw craving for community and belonging can be.
The power of community, the human need to belong and the ways it can be perverted and abused, serves as the show’s overarching theme. No (wo)man is an island, even when incarcerated, and how the different groups play off of each other, particularly under duress, fuels much of the dramatic action. The politics of the show aren’t “post-racial” in that the characters’ racial differences aren’t irrelevant or ignored; instead, they are treated as facts of life, to be talked about in much the same way as hair color or body type, both of which are commented on quite a bit.
In many ways, the world of the women’s prison feels a lot like an eccentrically stylized take on high school. Orange is the New Black doesn’t present itself as an expose on life behind bars as much as a comic microcosm of how women relate to one another. The men are portrayed as comically irrelevant — most are either sleazy idiots or amusingly oafish and dithering — and this is refreshing given the phallocentric alpha-male angst that has been TV fodder so often before. Here, the women are the ones who are growing and learning and finding their own particular niches within a starkly defined social structure. The fact that Orange Is The New Black isn’t particularly interested in muckraking means that what social commentary there is strikes the viewer as fresh and unforced.
In truth, part of the show’s charm and long-term value is that it is the spunkier, less pretentious half of Netflix’s venture into original programming. The overhyped and self-regarding House of Cards didn’t hit its stride as bona-fide escapism until it gave up on being a cynic’s version of The West Wing and started reveling in Frank Underwood’s campy villainy for its own sake. The fact that it’s streaming online proves that the medium really is the message, too. Having an entire season available at one time, accessible at a click encourages viewers to binge watch, immersing them in the storytelling. There are no mendacious and irritating year-long waits within truncated final seasons.
AMC, for all its commendable originality in choosing material, is guilty of this twice over, first with Breaking Bad and, most egregiously, with Mad Men. It’s almost as if the network assumes its programming is of such profound importance that it can take its sweet time offering it up to the public. One of the refreshing qualities of Orange Is The New Black is that it refuses to take itself as seriously as the highbrow TV shows do – it’s fun and engaging because it stays away from the self-importance that comes when TV attempts to tackle man’s search for meaning.
Matthew Weiner once explained that Mad Men is ultimately a show about becoming white. This trope is interesting enough as far as it goes, but learning how to be “white” (whatever that means) gets old fast. For much too long, there have been too many TV dramas preoccupied with the angst of the rich, white, and hopeless. The racially diverse and vibrantly eccentric Orange Is The New Black represents a way out of that tired albino rabbit hole.
Matt Hanson is a critic for the Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.