There are few things more tiresome than a work of alleged entertainment that relentlessly flogs a political or social agenda at the expense of its creative goals.
But the converse of this is true as well, at least for me: Whether or not I agree with the agenda in question, I have nothing but respect and admiration for a work that wraps up its social and political views in such an entertaining, well-made package that, as I fall further under the spell of the piece, I can't help but consider the arguments it makes.
Consider, for example, the anger that radiates from the center of "Orange Is the New Black."
It's billed as a comedy for certain awards purposes and it's a deft mixture of comedy, drama and melodrama, but the underlying anger was especially apparent in "OITNB's" tremendously satisfying second season. One thing the show is not is saccharine or unduly sentimental. I discussed Season 2 with critics Ryan McGee and Tom Fitzgerald from TomandLorenzo.com in this week's Talking TV podcast, and all three of us were struck by how realistic and even clinical the show is regarding why these women are behind bars.
Sure, the game was rigged against some of the women, and for them, a few bad choices ended more disastrously than they would have for someone more privileged and connected. But "OITNB" is also very clear-eyed about the fact that some of the women simply enjoyed breaking the rules and/or weren't overly burdened with consciences, and it's clear that "OITNB" has no issue with society's right to curb on their freedom, at least temporarily. As we discussed on the podcast, though the show has deep compassion for almost all of its characters, its philosophy cannot be summed up as, "Hug a prisoner because every one of them is a misunderstood victim." Not by a long shot.
And yet the second season repeatedly, almost relentlessly, asked the audience to think about what goes on behind closed doors and what happens when secrets are kept too well. Out of sight is out of mind when it comes to those under lock and key, but "OITNB" is clearly not OK with the lack of transparency and accountability at prisons like Litchfield, and it's certainly not OK with how low we as a society can go in our treatment of those who have transgressed. (From here on out, I'll be talking about "OITNB" Season 2 specifics.)
So often, "OITNB" is angry -- furious at the fact that an ailing old woman can be dumped on the streets without a care plan or resources, aghast at the fact that it's not unusual for prisoners to lack clean and safe living conditions, upset at the idea that those charged with the maintenance of inmates can steal from them and have their crimes quickly hushed up. Yes, all those situations were fictional on the show, but it's certainly not hard to believe that similar things happen in real life. As "The Wire" did, "OITNB" repeatedly puts ugly situations in front of us and says, in so many words, "Are you OK with this? Are we all OK with this?"
That said, "The Wire" didn't have Pornstache.
That's probably just as well -- McNulty would have found a justifiable reason to beat up Pornstache within 10 minutes of meeting him -- but there's a reason that "OITNB" became a hot commodity right out of the gate and it took a while for "The Wire's" genius to be recognized. "OITNB" gives us candy, so much delicious candy. Pornstache may not have been to your taste -- used as judiciously as he was in Season 2, I found him ridiculous in all the right ways -- but if he wasn't your cup of entertaining tea, something else in this richly detailed universe would likely allow you to fall under the show's spell.
Even more than "The Wire" -- a very complex and deep deconstruction of that old TV standby, the cop show -- "OITNB" has found ways to make its animating fury extraordinarily palatable and attractive. This isn't me pitting "The Wire" against "OITNB," by the way. They're both terrific shows, and as excellent as it is, it's too soon to tell whether "OITNB" is an all-time great like "The Wire." But both shows solved a knotty problem in similar ways. How do you get audiences to pay attention to people and issues they'd much rather ignore? How do you rage against the machine and get people to stick with your story? The formula that worked like gangbusters for both programs: You work within recognizable forms (cop show, prison drama), you create indelible characters and you entertain the hell out of the audience.
Perhaps due to Jenji Kohan's background in comedy, "OITNB" is able to make its central themes about exclusion, deprivation, loneliness and brutal power dynamics go down very easily indeed. I suppose you could watch Season 2 without necessarily sensing a deeper agenda -- a lot of "Sopranos" fans watched just for the whackings, after all -- but I would submit that even the most superficial fan felt the rage that percolated through the scene in which Jimmy, a prisoner with dementia, was taken away to be dumped on the streets. It was one of the season's most heartbreaking moments, and it was meant to be searing.
Despite most characters' silence in that moment, you could feel a righteous anger radiating off the screen, and throughout Season 2 -- despite all the soapy twists and turns and power struggles and romances -- "OITNB" didn't forget about Jimmy and the issues her fate raised. Sister Ingalls may have wanted to turn away from everything troubling inside Litchfield, and she, like everyone else, was annoyed by Brooke Soso's crunchy-granola babbling, but Brooke wasn't wrong. The conditions at the prison mattered, Jimmy mattered, and Sister Ingalls couldn't hide from that deeply inaccurate phrase: "compassionate release."
One of the many intelligent choices creator Jenji Kohan has made is employing familiar tropes and structures that absolutely makes each set of episodes feel like a season of television, despite the fact that the show "airs" on Netflix. This year, we got a Big Bad (the sociopath Vee), a star-crossed romance and a (partly) secret pregnancy (Daya and Bennett), several mysteries and cliffhangers, and a grand set piece -- the storm episode -- that united several story threads near the end of the season. Throughout the season, new characters were introduced to the show's already fascinating array, previous characters were developed even further, and smartly constructed dynamic tensions drove almost every relationship. The tragic exclusion of Poussey nearly broke my heart and the Vee-Red power struggle was all kinds of enjoyable (as was Nicky and Boo's sex competition). Even Pennsatucky and Healy's weird bond had its moments.
I'm hard pressed to name another show with a deeper bench of complicated, believable characters. Every one of them has deep flaws, and almost every one of them was awful at one point or another. Healy in particular reaffirmed his status as a piece of work; he could seem almost enlightened one minute but could slide right into rage the next. But just as Healy, Sister Ingalls, Yoga Jones and Caputo found their backbones late in the season, the show doesn't let its cynical leanings or its commitment to its own brand of realism destroy its core moral beliefs. So many characters had so much taken away from them this season. Piper ended up with no real family, inside or outside, and though Vee's reign of terror eventually ended, the sight of a sobbing Suzanne is something I won't soon forget.
These moments of loss, sadness and anger drove the urgent questions that percolated through so many stories: How much should be taken away from those who have transgressed? What constitutes just punishment? How do you define family, and what is the purpose of a family? What secrets are worth keeping -- socially and personally -- and what hidden things need to be dragged out into the light, no matter the cost? Who gets to have power and why do some people get more passes than others? What obligations do the powerful have to the powerless? What rights do the least among us have?
These are the questions that animate "OITNB"; these are the serious conundrums that give the show its drive, momentum and energy. But along with anger and compassion, there is a third quality that gives the show its heft and staying power -- curiosity. "OITNB" is endlessly interested in who these women are and what they are capable of. Ryan, Tom and I talked about how long we think the show should run, and here's when I think it should end: When Kohan and her writers are no longer deeply curious about the people they're depicting, no longer entertained and pained by their mistakes, and no longer moved by their momentary acts of kindness. I can only assume that day is far in the future.
All right, to wrap this up, here is some candy. Below you'll find a few of my favorite quotes from the second season of "Orange Is the New Black" and a couple other bits and pieces:
- Piper: "Do not defend your boner to me right now."