ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK
As a general rule, TV shows and movies cannot be too depressing or else no one would watch them anymore. They may take on tragic subjects, but they must conclude with some kind of saving grace. We like our entertainment to inspire, uplift. Over two thousand years ago, when the Greeks invented tragedy, they had a different idea about the role that drama should play in our lives. The Greek tragedians – particularly Euripides – wrote plays of extreme brutality. Just in the Oedipus story alone there is patricide, incest, self-mutilation, and exile – not much uplift at the end of that story. The Greeks believed, however, that it was only in being confronted directly with the unfiltered terrors of existence that an audience could achieve what they called katharsis, a full purging of the emotions that ultimately had a renewing or restorative effect on the viewer.
I can think of very few modern works of art that are so black that they truly yield no light. Malevich’s famous “Black Square,” perhaps. Fellini’s film La Dolce Vita. This probably means that we’re not as high-spirited as the Greeks were, because it takes tremendous joie de vivre to fully submit oneself to tragedy. That said, I am incredibly enthusiastic about the last season of Breaking Bad, because it appears that the show is speeding towards a firmly tragic conclusion. No way is Walter White getting out of the drug game with his life or his family intact.
All of this is really to preface some things I’d like to say about Orange is the New Black, the hit series now airing on Netflix, which I’ve been binge-watching every night until I’m exhausted and have ensured that I will be a waste of space at work the next day (seriously, it’s a problem).
The show is based on the real-life experience of Piper Kerman, who recently published a memoir of the same name. Piper is a self-described Boston WASP. Majored in Theatre at Smith College, speaks fondly of vacations in Provincetown. You get the idea. After college, in an experimental phase, she briefly dated a woman named Nora Jansen, who at the time happened to be employed as a heroin trafficker for a West African drug lord. Piper became entangled in the drug trafficking and ended up helping to launder a suitcase of cash internationally. After a few scary but exhilarating months of this, Piper moved on to San Francisco, where she met the man that would eventually be her husband, and together they moved to New York to start a life together. Five years later, on an afternoon in May, she was in her pajamas in her West Village walk-up, working at home as a freelance producer, when two customs officials showed up at her door to tell her she had been indicted on charges of drug smuggling and money laundering. She ended up having to serve 13 months at a federal corrections facility in Danbury, Connecticut.
The show is great but, for reasons I’ll elaborate, I hate it. It’s certainly riveting. You really feel like you’re getting a sneak peek inside a woman’s correctional facility. You see the hardships (bad food, sadistic guards); you see the unique social organization of the prison (cliques run along racial lines, segregating whites, latinos and blacks); and you see the general despair that goes with being incarcerated. And Piper Chapman is surrounded by a fabulous cast of characters: Sophia Burset, a courageous transsexual; Pennsatucky Doggett, a former drug addict who fervently preaches the gospel to the other inmates; “Crazy Eyes,” a hyperactive and slightly unhinged black woman who has a crush on Piper; “Red” Reznikov, a tough-as-nails former member of the Russian mafia who runs the prison’s kitchen. This is all highly entertaining, as you might imagine, and that’s why I hate it. It’s really too entertaining.
The story’s premise is a prime opportunity for tragedy, but the show dodges it. Life in prison, for all of its bleakness, is still portrayed as consistently exciting. Every one of the characters is quirky and unique and interesting. And whether it’s the annual holiday party or someone’s birthday, the inmates always seem to be singing or dancing. It begins to feel like the cast of Rent was sent to a women’s prison for a year. And none of the characters seem capable of speaking a line that is not provocative or witty. Nearly every line is a zinger. Just once, I’d like a character to say something like “We’re out of toilet paper” or “Pass the salt.”
And it’s not just the language. Every scene, too, is larded to the max with dramatic tension. Someone is either killing or threatening to kill someone. People are either having sex or upset that they’re not having sex. Someone is either doing drugs or smuggling drugs. The inmates are either ostracizing Piper or embracing her. Life does not get this exciting in Connecticut. It’s as if someone ripped out the first page of Screenwriting 101 – “Every scene should have conflict…” – and faxed copies to the all the writers with the instructions that the rule must be strictly followed upon penalty of death.
TV shows have no obligation to faithfully reflect real life but by portraying life in prison as a non-stop romp the show does make me wonder about exactly what it is trying to accomplish. In a recent NPR interview, Jenji Kohan, the creator of the series, gave us some clues. She discussed how, while the supporting cast of characters is wonderful, a series featuring only them could never have succeeded. They needed the character of Piper in the prison to make the story “relatable.” Relatable to whom? Presumably, their target audience: upper-middle class, college-educated, white women like Piper. Later in the interview, Kohan discussed how the series made a conscious effort to includes scenes detailing what all of the women’s lives were like before they went to prison. The main reason for this, Kohan said, was that it would be too bleak to shoot an entire show within the prison walls, and flashbacks allowed them to shoot scenes in the real world. Otherwise, she continued, the show might have been “potentially depressing.”
Now, entertaining the public is no crime. But the show is also capitalizing on the perception that it courageously depicts the realities of life in prison. They want it both ways. They want to talk about life in prison (a conversation our country desperately needs to have) but only if it’s from the narrow perspective of upper-middle class college-educated women and only if it’s not “potentially depressing.”
The truth is that there is a tragedy out there begging to be told and when it is fully told it will be plenty depressing. America incarcerates around 2.3 million people, more than any other country in the world. A vast number of those prisoners are non-violent offenders serving draconian sentences for drug-related crimes. Black people account for about 40% of the total prison population, even though they comprise only about 13% of the US population. Hispanics account for about 20% of the total prison population even though they comprise only about 16% of the US population. The tragedy is right there. It is a story about families and communities torn asunder. It is a story about prosecutors and law enforcement systematically targeting minorities in the name of a fraudulent “War on Drugs.” It is a story about legislators cruelly ratcheting up prison sentences decade after decade so they can proclaim that they’re “tough on crime.” There’s certainly a tragedy here, but what Orange is the New Black suggests to me is that we’re not ready yet to face it head-on.
– Matthew Saks This essay originally appeared on August 18 on denvercritic.com. Read more from DenverCritic here.