By Blake Baxter (@bbax2)
Television, spearheaded by the glory days of The Sopranos, The Wire and the like, experienced a Golden Age that began at the beginning of the century. There has been some debate about whether or not we are still in this era, but by now, most have conceded that television has transitioned into a new, slightly less prestigious, though still impressive Silver Age of Television. Your Breaking Bads and Mad Mens are winding down and being replaced by an abundance of quality shows looking to follow in their deservedly revered footsteps. In this era, HBO, Showtime, AMC and FX are leading the pack, but there are more and more channels and outlets entering the competition.
In 2013, an unexpected source joined in on the fun: the ultra-convenient rental and streaming monopoly Netflix. During the 2000s, Netflix nearly singlehandedly destroyed the video store industry and now it is looking to get a sizable portion of the original television market pie. This past month, it released its fourth slate of original (okay, counting Arrested Development is a stretch, but still) programming to mostly rave reviews.
The show, Orange is the New Black, is engaging and thought-provoking in a number of different ways. I bulldozed through the series over the course of just a few days last week. This was my first ride on the Netflix binge-watch merry-go-round. I still haven’t caught up with Netflix’s maiden original series House of Cards. I watched Arrested Development’s confounding fourth season at my own pace. And, I have absolutely no intention of checking out this past spring’s supernatural dud, Hemlock Grove.
I didn’t really know what to expect from this show. It is from the creator of Showtime’s Weeds, a show that started incredibly strong, but sadly dwindled into a directionless bore. The trailer for it didn’t really grab me. Therefore, I brashly assumed that it would go the way of Hemlock Grove and be quickly forgotten. But I was wrong. When it was released, respected and trusted critics were gushing about it. My friends were voraciously binging on the show too. And so, I was practically peer pressured into taking the plunge.
I found both the show and the binge-watching experience to be very interesting. If you aren’t aware, Orange is the New Black is the story of a relatively privileged white woman sentenced to a woman’s prison for fifteen months for a crime she committed ten years ago. There, she is thrown into the unknown and forced to adapt to a scary new world filled with a cast of characters who have backgrounds and world views radically different from her own.
The show is appealing for its mixture of comedy and drama, gratuitous nudity and complex characters and addicting for its serial story nature. However, like all shows influenced by the Golden Age, there is much more to it than that. It grapples with morality and the question of whether or not morals can or should be flexible in extreme situations. After I finished the season, I did a little digging to see what other people thought about the show and found that most people were into it for the story, the cliffhangers and the anticipation of what was going to come next.
This is very good news for Netflix. It means people will keep coming back for more and the company can take a step towards truly competing with heavyweights like HBO. However, many have criticized Netflix’s model of dumping all of the episodes at once for a multiple reasons. For example, dumping them all at once doesn’t typically sustain the conversation about the show. There is an initial wave of excitement, but the buzz quickly comes and goes, rather than drawing in viewers week to week in the manner of traditional television. In addition, the all-at-once distribution method has been knocked for affecting the quality of the show itself. Few think about it at the time, but when one consumes hours upon hours at once, they are bound to comprehend much less than if they were to spread it out over a period of time. Episodes and storylines begin to blend together and sometimes the larger meaning and message of the work doesn’t sink in as well.
With all of this in mind, I wanted to pay special attention to the themes of the show and see if there was a grander overarching message that was missed at first glance, when speeding through the season. And in my opinion, there is something worth thinking about that is easy to miss if you’re too engrossed in the plot. Orange is the New Black is a meditation on the legal, prison and justice system not unlike The Wire.
The Wire is about the inherent evils of institutions in our society. Well-intentioned people that serve them attempt to change the system for the better, only to be shut out and ultimately screwed over. In reality, the system is broken, flawed and unfair, but it is resistant to change because it is that way by design. Orange is the New Black takes a look the prison system and asks whether it is a corrupt institution no different than those of The Wire. At this point, there is substantial evidence to argue this case, though not yet enough of the story has unfolded for this to be conclusive.
Orange is The New Black is primarily the fish-out-of-water tale of one woman, but it features a remarkably diverse cast with characters from both ends of the prison system spectrum. It doesn’t just focus on the inmates, but also the guards and their higher-ups. Indecency and corruption is present on both sides of the law as guards blackmail and abuse prisoners and bureaucrats jockey for position against one another in hopes of climbing the ladder, and at the expense of their human captives. And what of the prisoners, yes, they are being punished for crimes they committed, but should they have their humanity stripped in the process? Does the system give them a fair chance to rehabilitate themselves, or does it make it impossible? And if it is impossible, what is it that makes it this way? The questions go on and on, but they should sound familiar by now.
In future seasons, it will be interesting to see how the show goes about answering these questions, if it chooses to do so at all. That is not to say that the show has to delve very far into these subjects to be successful. As the launch for its first season has proven, Orange is the New Black is effective and engaging as a suspenseful and addicting, sex-filled dramedy. Nevertheless, the larger themes of the show that are at work throughout its first season are worth considering, at the very least.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently covers the Carolina Panthers for Football.com and previously covered college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time someday.