Orange is the New Black Season Three: the Banality of Misery

Orange is the New Black was one of the Netflix’s first attempts at truly original programming and despite its flaws it gave an idea what could be done on the platform. We’re talking about shows whose subject matter wouldn’t actually air on TV. Season 3 is more of a structural departure from the first two, and in many ways it doesn’t pay off. While it still has its moments, those moments are farther away than they were in previous seasons. Let’s not waste any time and jump into it.

Trigger warnings: sex, alcohol, sexual assault, rape, language, emotional abuse

 

Beware of spoilers ye who enter

Season 3 can be best described as going wide instead of deep; by which I mean it doesn’t focus on a select few characters but instead uses the pre-existing characters to tell a wide range of stories. This approach has its merits. It’s a natural path to take the show, especially if they don’t want to repeat season 2 by having a character act as a sort of warping force on the entire setting. Not only that, but it falls in line with what the intended goals of the show, using Piper’s story as bait essentially, to create a space to talk about women in an intersectional framework. Not only that, but in a way it’s exactly what myself and others were hoping for in that the show would move away from Piper. Not to mention that all of these moving parts make Litchfield a much fuller place. This approach isn’t foolproof however; the basic idea is that you have such a density of characters and plots that some of them being duds is fine. In actuality, we have a cast of characters who are pitiable at best and contemptible at worst.

My problem with season 3, at the root, is that the characters aren’t as appealing they once were. The new gleam has worn off on some of them and others have histories that the show would rather we forget. It’s possible to have bad people be interesting characters, in a lot of ways that’s a good description of the TV renaissance with the exception of Parks and Rec, but these characters aren’t interesting. Nor can you call it misery porn, the notion that these characters deserve what they’re dealing with is antithetical to the show’s thesis and again, isn’t particularly interesting. In fact, this banality does reinforce the show’s thesis of prison being a horrible and dehumanizing place; it just doesn’t make for good television. Now, since it’s not that easy, there’s merit in discussing the individual characters and their arcs; I’m not going to discuss every character, just the ones that I have something to say on.

First, it’s worth mentioning that Larry was written out of the show, the only character from Piper’s life that shows up in more than one scene is her brother. This is an unambiguously good thing. Larry was both terrible and extraneous to the plot; a feeling that was only exacerbated by Jason Biggs being vocally offensive off the screen.

Piper is the closest thing to a main character, so it makes as much sense as anything else to start with her. She’s a terrible person and there’s nothing endearing. Her major moments can be summarized as following: being honest to Alex about getting her back in Litchfield, hate-sex with Alex, emotionally tormenting Alex, starting up and running a prison business, union-busting, cheating on Alex because of Alex’s tattered emotional condition, and getting revenge on Stella. The problem is that most of these actions are varying degrees of awful, the amount of space given the plot is disproportionate to how entertaining it is. Now while I’m not saying axiomatically that horrible things should be punished accordingly, there’s no consequence at all. Granted, Red finding out the truth and being robbed are both consequences but they’re comparatively small and abstract;  Red not interacting with Piper for half a season doesn’t stand out in this format and the money is a completely abstract issue. A lack of consequences is bad storytelling.

            Alex is completely superfluous. If she had completely disappeared after the season two opener, there would be questions but it would make sense. Instead Alex gets her own story that is by and large separate from the rest of the cast sans Piper. Most of the season is spent focusing on someone who turns out to be paranoid as a red herring and then we’re given a cliffhanger of a real assassin. While there is an attempt at integration by having Lolls be the person to introduce the kosher meal plot, that could have easily been given to Stella. The use of the red herring deflates the tension and actual assassin just comes out left field at the last possible moment. If nothing else, Alex did have one of the best lines this season, which you can find here.

Nicky is actually surprising. Her being written off via being sent to max was an unexpected development. The loss of her character is definitely a blow to the show although the fact that it happens gives more weight to such a fate compared to Miss Claudette, which again ties into the show’s thesis. The use of flashbacks in her final episode felt forced as it tried to gently rewrite her backstory and characterization to fit the narrative they were going for.

Healy, on the other hand, is a character that the show keeps trying to humanizing and I’m not interested in engaging with it on that premise. This is a man who has enabled the attempted murder of one woman, pushed another one into attempting suicide, and set out to get a female coworker fired in the course of less than a year. He is not a good person and whatever relationship he may have with Red or whatever nice thing he does is for his wife doesn’t make up his sins and how he is unrepentant.

Boo and Doggett intertwine enough and don’t have enough on their own to warrant separate discussion. Their relationship strangely works. Boo’s one plot in the spotlight is enjoyable, attempting to fleece fundamentalists and asserting yourself is good. Doggett is a lot more complicated though. First, the fact that Doggett tried to murder Piper and was a militant druggie fundamentalist is never really brought up again. This is certainly dissonant and there’s no answer as to why I’m okay with this. There is a certain amount of deprogramming going on and not addressing attempted murder, cause how do you do that?’ has a certain logic to it. Doggett’s main story is her relationship with Coates. The best reason for having this plot is a retread of the Daya/Bennett/Pornstache plot except shorn off the tone-deaf romantic subtext. Showing that prison rape is a horrible thing certainly makes sense in a show about prison. What makes less sense is showing the rape on screen, what makes even less sense is needing to juxtapose this next to a flashback of Doggett being raped. It’s the flashback that is truly gratuitous. Whatever point the show is trying to make is irrelevant; it’s doing so in a grossly shocking manner.

The biggest causalities of this storytelling method were the black clique. After Vee there was a large amount of emotional fallout that was more human and interesting than just about anything else. The lack of depth and constant moving away from them to other characters made it hard to buy in. Which is somewhat ironic, the de-emphasis on these characters to move onto other characters was somewhat expected, it’s just a matter of flawed execution.

Speaking of characters who had been de-emphasized, Sophia re-entering into the spotlight was good. That’s all.

Lolls and Stella aren’t really characters, or at least anything that approaches well rounded characters. They’re given so little attention yet the investment that the show asks us to make in them is far higher. Lolls is little more than a red herring hailing from the show’s brief Chicago trip, a weird attempt at mirroring the book’s events to begin with, but is at least characterized. Stella on the other hand is an intentionally mysterious entity that ends up hooking up with Piper, none of that is actual characterization but it’s basically all we’re given.

Caputo and by extension the prison privatization plot is essentially the season’s main plot. On a personal level, Caputo was being shaped up to be what passes for a good person on this show. The fact that his climax involves him selling out is a perfect encapsulation of how everyone on this show is varying degrees of bad, not good. The privatization plot in and of itself isn’t unexpected, it’s topical and relevant to the show’s overall themes. That being said, the show’s limited perspective really hurts the message. Obfuscating how the prison-industrial complex works, obscuring the profit motive for MCC to take over Litchfield creates an imperfect image of the system of oppression that the show is denouncing is a disservice. It muddies the waters and ends up being a weak-willed argument against the system at best.

Orange is the New Black may not be the best show, but it is a different enough show, and still has its moments that even if it’s not always entertaining, it still has value. Season 3 has been the worst of the lot, but there’s always room for improvement. Next week I’m not sure what I’ll be talking about, till next time.

 

 

 

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“Review” of OITNB Season 2

I guess this technically counts as a review, but considering that this will be more along the lines of stray observations and discussion instead of what you’d expect in a review, I decided to put it into quotes. 

So the new season of OITNB has been out for over a week so I figure everyone who wanted to has at a minimum at least started to make progress on the new season if not already finished it.  I found it to be rather enjoyable and i’ts a piece of media that invites its audience to engage critically with it. I’ve been mulling over that latter part, as well as the season from a more technical point of view. I feel like my thoughts are in a place where they’re coherent and meaningful enough that I can write a post like this.

First off, my general verdict/review: While this season is different both tonally and to a lesser degree, structurally from season 1, this is still very much the same show at it’s heart. If you didn’t like the first season, then don’t watch this, you’ll just be frustrated. At its core the show still has the same writing, acting,  and focuses on social issues that aren’t seen much of anywhere else on television with characters who are very much flawed. The one over-arching criticism i have of it as a whole is that it felt clunky at times.

That being said, below are my more specific, and thus spoilery observations/responses to parts of the season. So have some spoiler space

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Alright then let’s get into it with no particular order aside from when I think of it:

1. This season very much feels closer to The Wire in criticizing institutions and their harmful actions in the name of self interest. We saw this a bit last season with its effects on the prisoners and a bit on how it spreads out from there. I’m specifically referring to  Poussey’s monologue to Tatysee after the latter winds up back at Litchfield. Instead this season opted to use Caputo as a lens to look at it from the administrative side.  This isn’t strictly speaking a bad thing, in fact the more things that can reach The Wire’s quality and social commentary is a good thing. While this isn’t to say that it reaches the same level as The Wire,  ti gets an A for effort at the very least. It’s execution is a bit murkier.

2. This is partly because the showrunners clearly don’t have the same background as the creators of The Wire did, but part of is also a matter of different tones and story conventions. What I mean by this is things like Rosa being a bankrobber or Gloria’s abusive boyfriend being coincidentally killed in a way that  could be supernatural vengeance is more on the fantastical side. It’s not a bad thing, merely a difference that both shows understand and work with for their own advantage.

3. I disliked Vee, she was flat and utterly evil. Her main advantage was in how she affected people around her: Red, Suzanne, Poussey and Tastyee all had wonderful material based around her presence and actions but Vee herself is not really a character. A better description would be a plot device. SHe served her purpose and I’m glad that she’s gone.

4. I’m still annoyed that we didn’t see what Poussey did to get arrested, while her flashback sequence was interesting, albeit the parallels were a bit grating, this still annoys me. You can say the same thing for Red, arguably moreso for Red.

5. I really, really hate the season opener. Between Piper effectively alone, ignoring the rest of the characters whose lives we left mid-sentence, coupled with a groan inducing SYMBOLISM made this a painful hour to get through. Although two points in its favor: 1. from what I can gather is actually something that happened to the real life Piper more or less, I haven’t actually read the book yet. 2. This kind of move is something you can only really do on Netflix or maybe, maybe AMC/HBO.  Streaming it means it’s only a matter of looking at the next episode summary to see that the attention goes back to Lichtfield. AMC/HBO et al. cause it’s ballsy and with the proper execution is artsy critic bait.

5a. Piper’s lawyer is terrible.

 

6. I don’t dislike Piper. It helps that her sins are repeatedly called out by other characters. The only two characters I actively hate are Larry, Healy and I guess technically Vee but see above. Everyone on this show is varying degrees of terrible, but they’re by and large trying to be good people on some level. It makes the show a lot more enjoyable instead of being mired in terrible people who do terrible things repeatedly like say It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I admit that I’m also a bit more lenient towards the prisoners for being terrible people, cause they’re in prison. It sucks and you do what you have to do.

7. More on the characters I actively hate. Larry is a self centered dick who’s main arc last season was based upon exploiting Piper’s incarceration for his own advancement. The whatever you want to call it between him and Polly read to me more as a groan inducing way to keep him relevant to the story instead of anything, organic or meaningful. His scenes are dull and I don’t care. Healy on the other hand, is basically a MRA who had no qualms in allowing a murder he could stop from happening. His one saving grace is that his material is more engaging, which is to say at all. I don’t hate Pennsatucky cause she’s stopped being a meth addled self righteous zealot and seems to be trying to be a better person.

8. A theme of this season seemed to be couples are evil or stupid or something. Cause Larry/Polly and Daya/Bennett were some of the worst material.The former for keeping Larry around and the latter cause those two are just so, goddamn, stupid.  Daya/Bennet had the saving grace of varying quantity of dumb, so not all of their scenes were bad.

9. I could’ve done without the continued use of Pennsatucky’s former lackeys from last season as the white trash comedic duo. They just didn’t do it for me.

10. I don’t think they had much of a plan in Season 1 for  a lot of stuff. Clearly Vee was retconned in, a touch awkwardly in my opinion. Morello’s situation feels like a retcon based on a throwaway line from either Nicky or Boo in the first season. I feel like there are some other things that didn’t sit quite right with me from a continuity stand point but I can’t think of anything specific. Conversely, it seems, and I hope, that they have a lot more planned with Season 3 based on the sprawl that happened.

11. I have no idea what they’re planning to do with Brook, the contrast angle to Piper didn’t last long. Her flashback(s) should be interesting to say the least. or they’ll be ungodly grating, either or.

12. I have no opinion on Alex. After the opener I was fully expecting her to only appear in flashbacks if that. I was surprised by the fact that she showed up in the current day. While she’s pretty high up there of irredeemable characters, there’s a certain element of alienness to her circumstances that makes it hard to be invested.

13. I really hope they don’t use that backdoor of perjury to extend Piper’s sentence. If the show keeps going after she gets out, then it keeps going without her. I thin based off of the vague timeline we have to work with they’re giving themselves enough room to keep the focus on Piper for a while. This is based off the assumption that season 1 was 3-4 months, 1 month time skip, 3-months for season 2 means we’re roughly halfway through Piper’s 15 month sentence.

14. I liked the sprawl of season 2, more of that and less of a focused arc like season 1 for season 3 would be great. This seems fairly likely given that the producer wanted to use Piper as a way to get to tell stories about women lacking the same kind of privilege.

15. I found Red to be the most compelling story this season. Her adjustment to life and her own seeking redemption were the most engaging things. I didn’t think this last season for a few obvious reasons.

16. Characters who haven’t had flashbacks yet/characters I expect flashbacks of: Brook, Boo, Red’s second from S1 who’s name I’m blanking on, Anita, Norma, Flaca, Flaca’s friend who I’m blanking on right now. More Red and Piper/Alex flashbacks but I’m not sure who else actively needs flashback in this vacuum of speculation.

17. There’s definitely a comparison to be made in House of Cards and OITNB structure as a series made primarily for Netflix. I’m in no position to make any sort of definitive statement but it’s something to consider at the very least.

If you have any feedback or would like to discuss any of these points further then feel free to comment. Until next time, where I either talk about Solforge or Defiance in all likelihood.