I’m watching Orange Is the New Black, the new Netflix show about a women’s prison. It is amazing. Just the right mix of light and dark. Shows like this always veer in the direction of being too brutal. Like, yeah, desperate people can be horrible to each other: I don’t need to watch six seasons of Breaking Bad to know that. In Orange Is The New Black, many of the people are genuinely sort of okay, which makes it easier to understand the terrible stuff that they do. Like, almost all the guards show empathy towards the inmates at times, but in the end, they’re still authority figures, and they make the inmate’s lives terrible in casual ways.
For instance, when a guard tries to seduce a prisoner, it might be because he really loves her and she might even really care for him, but it also puts her in a seriously difficult position. Or how when a normally-pleasant guard is challenged for something minor, he’ll immediately turn to making threats.
So the show is really good. However, literally every character in it is some kind of stereotype. In no case did they dig deeper than the first choice for a given character’s race or ethnicity. For instance, just imagine the first race/ethnicity that comes to find for the following characters.
- A hard-as-nails former restaurant owner who was involved with the mob?
- A stern, buttoned-down, very religious disciplinarian who ran a cleaning service that used illegal child labor?
- Haitian, of course!
- A wanna-be faith-healer with bad teeth and a meth habit?
- Appalachian. Duh!
- A former firefighter who transforms into an expert hairdresser?
- African-American trans woman (the power of female hormones, amirite?)
- The former junky who grew up on Park Slope in a house with a doorman?
- White girl!
- A \ woman with five kids by five different fathers, who neglected her children so she could party with her drug dealer boyfriend.
- A girl who was gonna go to college on a track scholarship until she got mixed up with a bad crowd and was busted for theft.
- A writer who lives off his parents and mines his relationship w/ his prisoner fiance for material to get him into the NYT and New York Times.
I don’t think there’s a single prisoner in here who is played against type. I mean, maybe that’s what was in the source material, but, I mean, come on. The writers ought to have stretched themselves at least once.
The worst part of the show, though, has to be the flashbacks to the protagonist’s pre-incarceration life. All the other flashbacks (each episode focuses on a different inmate) are really interesting, because they’re well-drawn and do their best to humanize the subjects. However, many episodes also include a flashback or two for the main character (a white woman–currently engaged to a man–who is in prison because, ten years ago, she was involved in her girlfriend’s drug smuggling ring).
All the other flashbacks are good because the other inmates are presented to us in an opaque, forbidding way. Because prison imposes conformity of dress, manner, and situation, we don’t know much about them. The flashback opens up their lives and their minds.
But when it comes to the main character, the flashbacks do nothing for us.
Like, uhh, she was a WASP who was torn between security and adventure. We get it. We understood that in the first two minutes of the show’s first episode. All these contrasts between her doing yuppie things (juice cleanses) and rebellious things (smuggling drug money through customs) are wasted, because they don’t advance our understanding of the character.
All that having been said….the show is one of the best that I’ve seen in a long time.