The Seeker

A Meta-Cognitive Journal About Writing… Plus Other Stuff

I’m Watching OITNB… For Now

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I’m halfway through the third season of Orange is the New Black, the Netflix original series that has garnered little less than full praise from, well…  almost everybody.  I can’t argue with a lot of what comes up in reviews from sources I respect and trust:  The idea of a women’s prison drama is unique, the show offers authentic marginalized voices to what would otherwise be an apathetic public, the ensemble cast is a powerhouse, it has pathos galore…  and let’s not forget the lesbian sex.  A lesbian that was in the poetry workshop I attended last summer cautioned me that, “It’s not even good lesbian sex, except for one particular scene.”  She didn’t explicate further than that, and I didn’t rewatch anything to see if I could find the one she meant.  I don’t think the lack of verisimilitude with the lesbian sex is keeping anybody away from the show.

The show on the whole is worth watching, and I’ve been surprised at how much I have liked the third season thus far.  I was skeptical when the second season ended with an extended episode that was little more than a farce.  The major antagonist escaped the prison, and despite being a hardened criminal, made a ridiculous decision to place herself along a busy road…  where she was, of course, run over by another inmate who made an escape in a prison van in one final glorious joy ride before succumbing to terminal cancer.  Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the crooked Executive Assistant to the Warden was exposed by an aspiring subordinate, and the sexual act between the two of them was nothing short of ridiculous.

The show has been categorized as a black comedy, which I don’t necessarily agree with.  There was plenty of grit in the first two seasons to make it a full-on drama with some memorable lighter moments or quirky characters that kept things lighter if not interesting.  And as far as “interesting” goes, forget about it with Piper, the point-of-view character.  Hers in the least interesting story line in the show, mostly because who really gives a crap about what happens to the privileged white chick?  She’s gonna be outta there and back in her staid lifestyle soon enough because she’s a privileged white chick.  I don’t really care how neurotic, desperate, selfish, and manipulative she is finding herself to be—it’s the minority characters who are the most interesting.

Unfortunately, OITNB runs backwards far too often.  It’s annoying as hell.  You can’t get more than two or three minutes into any particular episode without a flashback showing what a particular character did to end up in jail, or what his or her life was like before prison.  The majority of the characters are marginalized and minority women, so guess what?  Their life circumstances were pretty much shit before they got pinched for whatever crime.  They were either responding to the environment, or made some profoundly poor decision that led to their prosecution.  Or, through pure ignorance, they felt above or beyond the reach of the law.  It’s pretty much the same with all of them, but for some reason the writers need to club the audience over the head with the same idea.  What’s worse is there seems to be some kind of contest going now regarding who can write the most interesting or unexpected backstory for whatever character—but it’s pointless because it all comes back to “character x” committed “action y” and is now in prison.  I don’t need or want to know that Chang was a mail-order bride before becoming shady Chinese underworld figure; I don’t need or want to know that Big Boo was a temperamental diesel-dike who ran an underground gambling ring.  I don’t need or want to know that Pensatucky killed a nurse at an abortion clinic for disrespecting her, or that her mom hopped her up on Mountain Dew to get more welfare money.  What I’d rather see is things unfolding moving forward.  For instance, Pensatucky is a helluva lot more interesting when she’s talking about how she didn’t kill the abortion worker for religious convictions (a pro-life group paid her attorney fees), but for a selfish, short-sighted, immature reason.  Her dialogue in season three completely nullified the need for her flashback in season one.  It was really no surprise—a character’s actions and dialogue speak volumes about her and develop her more effectively than slamming on the plot brakes and showing what happened back in ’88 or ’94 or just six months prior.  The whole show can’t run on forward momentum at this point, but they could be doing a lot fewer flashbacks and achieve a greater effect.  The risk of so many flashbacks is that they become irrelevant or unnecessary.  You need look no further than the flashback for corrections officer / counselor Mr. Healy.  It’s enough for us to see that he’s frustrated in his marriage to a mail-order bride, that his initiatives in the prison are short-sighted and shallow, and that he is incredibly sensitive and insecure.  All that is a bunch of interesting stuff that the actor portrays effectively.  Instead of continuing with him moving forward, we got to see an episode from his childhood so absurd and ridiculous (and cliche) that it looked like the producers had hired David Lynch to direct the flashback and insisted that he make it some kind of tribute to “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

My fear is that the flashbacks will continue to dominate the show and diminish the drama and grit that has made it worth watching.  It needs to be itself, with it’s own voice, and not make such heavy use of the same contrivance that makes Family Guy so hilarious.  It seems that everybody now is slavering over more backstory for the character Crazy Eyes.  I didn’t even want to know what we were already told about her privileged upbringing in an adoptive white family who couldn’t seem to manager her anxieties, social awkwardness, and temperamental outbursts.  I don’t want to delve deeper into her background.  I want to see how she continues to struggle with her issues; I want to see her failures and rejections and delusions and her violent attacks on other inmates.  That’s far more interesting than the ho-hum thread that the writers will eventually develop for her to explain how she ended up in prison.

Despite this, the show is still worth watching.  I hope it remains so.  It makes for compelling viewing with an interesting umbrella conflict.  As trusted friend Bo remarked, the women in Litchfield are overall trying to maintain a balanced, manageable environment under circumstances that no person would ever consider balance-able or manageable.  Their struggle is epic, and certainly worth watching.  They have to establish and develop the very skills they lacked outside the prison walls in an environment in which most everybody is lacking those skills; where lacking them can have great consequence and further their predicament, and where there are no role models for how to develop those skills.  The biggest surprise for me this season is that the show has subordinated the main (and even interesting supporting) characters frequently to focus on how the prison is run.  It’s a very current issue as even The New Yorker this week took a look at prison reform and hinted about the privatization of prison management.  If OITNB is an indicator, letting corporate America take over rehabilitation and reform isn’t going to work too well.

In the ideal world, I guess I’d like to see season four unfold in real time over a thirteen-hour period inside the prison.  It would be a tremendous feat of writing, but one that would make an equally tremendous impact on what television can be.  And there would be no flashbacks.  Is it possible?

Written by seeker70

June 24, 2015 at 9:28 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. […] total forward momentum.  I can’t think of a better thing they could do with the series, and lobbied for such a few years ago when I was thinking about OITNB.  If this comes to fruition, maybe we’ll be looking at the […]

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