Orange Is The New Black: Netflix Review

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What’s it about?

Piper Chapman is an upper middle class white woman who is engaged to be married to Larry, aka, Jason Biggs. But she gets nailed on a drug offense from ten years ago, ratted out by her ex-experimental lesbian lover, and is sent to a minimum security prison for a year. She is entering completely foreign territory and, along with her, you learn about this new world and meet a large cast of prisoners, guards and prison workers. Captain Janeway is in it.

Did you pound out the whole season in a weekend?

No, but I watched it in pretty big chunks. I don’t know how we ever watched TV one episode per week. And I really wish I’d held onto my 3 shares of Netflix stock. This is the future. In any case, the reason you get roped in is that the protagonist knows nothing at all about prison or women’s prison, which is true of most of us. So everything that happens to her is the answer to a question. That makes it interesting right away.

Does that mean it’s good?

I enjoyed quite a bit and will certainly watch the next season. The setting and social context are interesting and it’s well written. It also has some fine acting and most of the cast is from American Pie. Here’s an example of the good writing. Joe Caputo is like the prison version of middle management. He’s not dumb, but he’s not nuanced in his thinking either. His job basically consists of being frustrated and dealing with ridiculous crap constantly, so perhaps he’s conditioned to expect it. The guard, John Bennet (Commando name mash up!) is one of the “good guys” of the show. Compassionate, perceptive, but a touch naive.

Supervisor: This place stinks.

Guard: We’ll open some windows sir.

Supervisor (gives guard a subtly derisive look): That’s not what I meant.

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I know it seems like nothing but, as my favorite boxing expert says, “small things, all things.” So the supervisor opens with a metaphor and the guard runs with it and then the supervisor, perhaps slightly prejudiced by the fact that he’s speaking with a working man and most of the people he deals with are not very bright, doesn’t get what the guard is doing. Then the guard just makes a “whheeelp!” face and they part. That’s pretty nuanced for a minor scene between secondary characters. On most shows they would just complain about the coffee or something.

And the acting is really good in this scene too because they convey all of the subtleties at work. When the supervisor misses what the guard is saying, the look he shoots the guard isn’t meant to humiliate him or anything, it’s more like “wow, I thought you were reasonably intelligent. Huh.” And the guard sort of elongates his facial features to say, “Yikes! Well, better just let that one slide on by.”

Is it consistently good?

Well that little exchange stood out to me, but it typifies the best stuff. And yes, especially for the first season of a show, it is consistently good. The worst stuff is probably when they pander to an educated liberal audience. For example, Healy, the head of the guards, is meant to represent the lower end of the patriarchy. His MO is that he’s treats the women well, so long as he can be in control and they act in a way he finds acceptable (no lesbianism!). And the women reciprocate, running to him to tell tales and sweetly whining for him to fix their problems (“Mr. Heeeaa-ly!”), until they run into one of his barriers for their behavior at which point they can become nasty. You could say this gets a little heavy handed at times, like when Healy is shown at home with a mail order bride who treats him with open contempt. But on the whole, they do a nice job with the character.

That doesn’t sound so bad.

Well, it sets the stage for the worst line in the show. Chapman believes she has seen a mythical chicken that roams the prison yard and this has gotten all of the women worked up. So Healy is trying to convince her that she imagined seeing the chicken. And in so doing, he delivers one of about 2-3 really cringeworthy lines from the season:

That chicken is a myth. Like global warming, or female ejaculation.

OK. Global warming, I can almost buy because it’s just a TV show. He’s never mentioned politics before so it’s pretty strange that he’s shoehorn global warming into the conversation like that, because only people obsessed with right wing politics would have global warming as the first thing that comes to mind as an example of a myth. But throw in female ejaculation and I’m wincing. We’re in reverse Limbaugh territory. These moments aren’t common, though.

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Is there hot girl on girl action?

Yeah. Although it’s not really that hot, even though it’s fairly explicit and the women are attractive. I don’t know how they managed that. The prison sex just seems like part of the story rather than exploitative. Maybe I’m just old.

If you don’t dig the lesbo stuff, how are you going to write 9,000 words on this show?

Well, it’s a good drama with a decent comedic element. And it is both directly and indirectly a fascinating study of a whole cross section of issues. If I was going to go really crazy with it, I could make an argument that this show represents what contemporary feminism should be.

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What makes you say that?

Well, there’s a scene in this show, which is largely for and by women, that reminded me of a scene in Robert Altman’s Dr. T And The Women. Dr. T is about a gynecologist who is surrounded by adoring women in every facet of his life. He loves them but he also has his limits. Anyway, it’s an early scene where a bunch of the women are in his office and they start talking and once they get going, it becomes a chatter storm. And all these female voices are going “buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh” at once and it kind of sounds like a chicken farm.

That’s misogynist!

Well, that’s what many critics said, hoping to exert moral superiority and have some bullshit to write. But I disagree. That’s just what it sounds like when a bunch of women all start talking at once. Maybe you don’t want to be in the room when it happens, but there’s no reason to hate them for it.

What does this have to do with Orange Is The New Black?

There’s a scene where it is announced that an election will be allowed so that the inmates can chose representatives. The women become so excited that a chatter hurricane ensues. The women are standing up, gesticulating, getting louder and louder. It’s Dr. T turned up to 11. But because of the context, I doubt anyone perceives it as being misogynistic.

There’s another one where Chapman, who has probably never seriously tried at any sport, is chasing that mythical chicken. And she’s not allowed to run. So you have this really uncoordinated woman speed walking around after a chicken and, well, there’s an undeniable resemblance between the two. It was funny, but because it wasn’t created by Woody Allen, we can have a non-oppressive laugh at it.

So, I suppose you regard women as ridiculously lovable little chicken-children.

Exactly. And I didn’t even have to say it. And really, I think almost everyone recognizes that facet of femininity on at least some level. Certainly, that is one of the most prominent portrayals of women in Orange Is The New Black. And we can just embrace that, realize it doesn’t make anyone inferior or justify abuse or anything along those lines. We can just finally be candid about it move on to having a lovable chicken child president. It’s very unlikely she’ll be as good at poker as Richard Nixon was but maybe she won’t like prisons and wars so much. Not if it’s Hillary, though. That bitch loves prisons and wars like Asians love Abercrombie & Fitch.

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But do women think that about themselves?

I mean, there are kind of two stories about it. On the one hand, women as silly gooses are very common in media for and by women. But on the other hand, most of us think there should be female senators and female cops and that in most situations a woman is as good for the job as a man. So we’re afraid that the depiction of women as silly gooses is at odds with the depiction of women as capable. But this is wrong. Like, nobody thinks men can’t be senators because of Laurel and Hardy. And the key to their success was highlighting foibles of the male of our species: overconfidence, bullying, carelessness, etc.

But men are in a position of power.

True. And that’s why the scene in Orange Is The New Black can skate by. Women have more power in general these days. And in the making, marketing and consumption of this particular TV show, they have a lot of power. So the whole world in and around the show is a world dominated by women, a world in which the silly goose can roam free and proud.

So, what? It’s misogynistic feminism?

I’d say realistic. Like, another theme is that women do have some advantages in life. Now, one character, speaking of a male to femal Transexual says something like, “who could be born a man and give it up? It’s like winning the lotto and giving the ticket back.” And I agree. Men, on the whole, have to deal with a lot less bullshit. And rape. But that doesn’t mean that we have to pretend that women never have it better.

For example?

One thing that’s touched on explicitly is that prison is a lot easier for women than it is for men. The head of the guards tries to set Piper at ease when she first shows up by saying, “this isn’t Oz.” In this instance, women are protected by their own nature.

Here we go with misogyny!

Check out the definition of that word sometime. I’m very fond of women. They aren’t as vicious as men and don’t have quite the same need to dominate each other. Yeah, they are competitive in their own ways, but ultimately they’re more compassionate and nicer, and also they don’t really have the physical assets to hurt each other that much. So, while many things are more difficult for women, prison is easier. If the show is at all accurate, a typical woman going to prison is going to see her risk of rape go way, way down while she’s in there. And for the most part they don’t really beat eachother up or stab each other. It happens, but it’s an anomaly. And they seem to be kinder to each other. The show makes a big point out of how the women “take care of” one another. Now I’m aware, women are not always as kind to each other as they are to men, children and stuffed animals. But I think it’s fair to say that they are kinder to each other than are MS-13 and The Nazi Low Riders.

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I’m not sure this show is a realistic depiction of prison, though.

True. Which is one thing that makes it interesting. You can learn a lot by watching shows that are made for women, largely by women. It’s like a chance to see through a woman’s eyes. Everything becomes soft and squishy, even prison. Of particular interest is the way they imagine male to male interactions.

Bones is the all time champion of this. The men on Bones never act anything like men. They’re equivalent to the women in beer commercials. And Orange Is The New Black has a scene like that too. Chapman’s fiance, played by Jason Biggs, has an article published in the New York Times and he buys a bunch of copies from newstand. This tough Latino guy is like, “think you got enough copies?” Biggs explains that he wrote an article in the paper. The ensuing conversation has nothing to do with male reality whatsoever and culminates in the Latino saying, “one day, you’re going to write the WHOLE newspaper!” That’s not to say that tough looking Latinos don’t often turn out to be friendly guys, but this particular conversation sounds like something a girl would make her dolls say when playing tea party. “Oh MY Mr. Snazzlepus! Maybe, one day you’ll write the WHOLE newspaper!”

That is pretty interesting. Not really, but you’re going to keep at it anyway.

It’s like one social experiment layered on top of another. Because it’s a story written by a woman, women played a the biggest roles in producing it, it’s about a female prison and it’s marketed to women So it’s a world of women, interpreted by women with the aim of pleasing women. A kinder, gentler, sweeter world.

Are you suggesting the world would be better if it was all women? Is that how this is feminist?

Well, really, we pretty much have all of the inventions and stuff we need. If you have a high speed internet connection, air conditioning, aspirin and pizza delivery that probably brings you enough utility that you wouldn’t trade lives with Charlemagne. It doesn’t matter if we get hover cars or a city on the moon. New stuff seems to just be goofy bullshit like Google glasses and Segways. I think the women could take it from here and they’d do a better job of making sure everybody got their fair share.

Our main contributions as men are now keeping things tight aesthetically. You know, it would kind of suck if all music was sappy love songs or a pretext to go wiggle around on the dance floor. And if the only truly great film ever made was an ode to Hitler. Though, if there weren’t men, I guess there wouldn’t be a Hitler. Is Hitler worth Shakespeare? I don’t know. Also, this is a pretty good show, so maybe we’re even being cut out on that front.

But I still feel like there should be some class of people who understand that it’s not worth driving around for ten minutes to find a closer parking spot so as to save 30 seconds of walking. Especially when you’re already late for your dinner reservations.

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Does the film touch on other social issues?

Boy oh boy, does it touch on social issues. The stuff that was most powerful to me was the back stories on how the women grew up and how they went to prison. It’s one story after another of pain, unfairness, cruelty and bad luck, which surely represents the stories of most of the people we lock up in this country. The last backstory I saw was simple enough. Tricia Miller is a good natured girl who flees sexual abuse at home, winds up homeless and addicted to drugs. Madeline Brewer really nails the character of a bluntly dumb and good hearted street kid. She tends to do the first thing to come to mind which, in her situation, will lead to trouble.

What do we do with people like that in our society? Lock them in cages and hope they die so we can wash our hands of them. She accommodates by killing herself. If civilization continues to progress, I think that’ll be the thing they look down their noses at us about in 150 years. They’ll be like, “I don’t care. No leader who advocated throwing 1% of the population into prison could have been a decent human being.” And they’ll be right.

And that’s sort of what I’m getting at in the paragraph above, and why it’s appropriate for this to be a women’s show, and a feminist show. It’s really about being confronted with cruelty and oppression and responding with at least some level of compassion and just the ability to absorb a lot of bullshit.


If it was just that stuff, it would be boring, or maybe good but depressing. But at the same time, it’s a funny show full of women because it embraces their ridiculousness. Sure. As L. Ron Mexico, brilliantly pointed out, the most accomplished women in the world will become the most hilarious creature for ten square miles if she tries to carry a microwave up some stars. Women aren’t funny when they pretend to be racist or some stupid shit like that. They’re funny when they try to carry microwaves up stairs, which this show understands. But that doesn’t mean you can’t respect them, which the show obviously does.

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Are you sure that you’re not projecting?

Oh, I’m sure that I am projecting. There’s a lot of intelligence in the show, but I think many of these themes just kind of arise from the setting and the time in which the show is made. That’s what I meant when I said it touches on social issues indirectly. Some of the direct social observation is kind of hamfisted and condescending, just like the global warming/female ejaculation joke.

For example?

Well, a lot of it is just sort of scratching the itches of an audience consisting of people like Piper Chapman, the well off, educated, white protagonist. So, for example, there’s this scene where some black characters pretend to be white as a way of making fun of us. But it doesn’t sound anything like black people making fun of white people. It sounds like white people making fun of white people because, I suspect, that’s really what it is. Like that really bad blog I don’t want to say the name of.

So these black characters say stuff like, “oh, did you hear that piece about hedge funds on NPR? My word!” I don’t know the exact extent to which young, poor, urban blacks are aware of the existence of NPR. But I’m quite confident it’s not at the forefront of their consciousness that a lot of white people listen to NPR.

And also, we whites don’t really talk about NPR that way. You just sort of dip in and out of NPR. NPR is not a program that’s on for an hour, it’s a whole channel. So you don’t just walk up to someone and assume they heard the same show as you, like you might with 60 Minutes. If anything, you’d say, “wow, I heard this story about hedge funds on NPR…” and then go on to describe it. And if the other white happened to hear the same story, it would be moderate coincidence and they’d say, “oh my God, I heard that story too! Wait, do you ALSO hate using washcloths?”

From the perspective of black women like the ones in that scene, I think NPR would be kind of like the unveling of a secret that they sort of vaguely knew. Like when Chapelle did his first menthol cigarettes joke and, as a young white possessing only vague knowledge of the black world, I went, “oh my god, they DO smoke menthols, don’t they?” And only then did I arrive at the joke and find it hilarious. It had to be delivered to me. But this kind of racial humor on Orange is The New Black is more like if Chapelle wrote two whites standing around talking about how blacks smoke menthols.

Anything else I should know about it?

Well, it’s from the creator of Weeds. I wouldn’t say they are parallel shows though. This is a lot more serious when it is serious. While Weeds pretty much takes place in a fantasy world, Orange Is The New Black is meant to introduce you to a part of reality you probably don’t know about. I guess if Weeds was Jenji Kohan’s Big Lebowski, this is her Fargo. Also she once wrote an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.




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