Monday, August 26, 2013

TV Buff: Orange is the New Headline Joke

I binge-watched 13 episodes of Orange is the New Black, in between jotting about a dozen pages of the dissertation. Comments (on OitNB, not the dissertation) after the break.
First: let's take a moment to reflect on that term, shall we? Binge-watching. I think I started noticing it earlier this year, when the Arrested Development reboot aired, also on Netflix. Before that, you didn't binge-watch, you had a marathon. A Buffy marathon, a Law & Order marathon, etcetra. The difference is plain enough; in the first case, it's over-consumption. And in the second case, it's a physical accomplishment. The act doesn't change, but the language surrounding it does. I'm pulling this out of my ass, theoretically speaking, but the shift seems to reflect a technology shift away from network television to Netflix. And it echoes a cultural thing regarding food; in a society of hunting and gathering, consuming more food than anyone else is a sign of power, that you are capable of amassing more than anyone else. In a larger society where food isn't a scarce commodity (at least, not in the same way, say, golden chandeliers are), consuming more food is a moral weakness, and demonstrates a lack of will power and general unattractiveness. Likewise, there seems to be a sense now that watching a show "all at once" is a moral failing. Is the change in terms because television shows gone from something scarce, something that required effort and dedication to amass to something that you can access any time? And if so, why didn't DVDs, video tapes, and so forth create the same binge sense? Maybe it's because they still required some effort to gather up--Netflix shows are a cornucopia available at one place. Or maybe it's because they were still material, and part of the act of turning the ephemeral Netflix into something more manageable is turning its original series into something we can metaphorically consume.

But let's talk about the show at hand. For whatever reason, I hadn't put it together in my head that the creator of the show is also the woman who was behind Weeds, Jenji Kohan, until the second episode or so. Once I realized that, the show just... clicked. It's the same sense of humor, the same mix of criminality meets upper middle-class sensibilities, the same kick-ass theme song. And the main character, Piper Chapman, is the SAME CHARACTER as Weeds' Nancy Botwin (even their last names have a sort of sameness to them). She's a middle class, bright-eyed woman who is clearly attracted to the seedier side of life, but still wants to put on a respectable veneer. Hell, they're even both WASPs involved with Jewish men. If Nancy Botwin had been caught fifteen years earlier smuggling drug money (and you know, if she actually had smuggled drug money), she'd BE Piper Chapman. But even after that complaint, I liked the show a lot. Why wouldn't I? I liked Weeds.

In fact, the big question I had after watching the season was why this show seemed to be so popular when Weeds itself died a fairly ignominious death about a year ago.  But that's not being fair to Orange, or to its fans. Orange is doing a lot of things that Weeds failed to do very well. First, the more shallow things: just being on Netflix is a bit of a boost at the moment. That's a far bigger reach than Showtime, Weed's home channel, ever had. And being a Netflix original series is its own prestige at the moment. Just by being there and being new, in the middle of a time where no real new shows are airing, is a big advantage.

Delving deeper, Orange is also a better show, especially when compared to the last few seasons of Weeds. The show was drifting quite a lot at that point, and had arguably been drifting ever since they left the suburbs, spending seasons in the east coast, the south border, road trip season, and New York. And the characters drifted too. It felt like everyone reinvented themselves every season. Granted, that gets to be its own story eventually, but there's still a sense of fatigue. Orange doesn't have that problem. First, it's only a season long to date, which limits sprawl. More significantly, it's all based on a single location, and single, if grim goal: do your time in jail. (And I'm sure it's no coincidence, in terms of Kohan pushing this show, that Nancy's time in jail was largely elided in Weeds.) Weeds, too, was about telling a bunch of stories, in making people we often disregard seem more human; that's what's going on in Orange, with all of its exploration of a women's prison demographics. Most significantly, the biggest and most obvious difference, is that word there--women. Weeds was essentially about Nancy and her relationship with men: her brother-in-law, the father of her child, her sons, etc. This is not a show about men--they're there, but they're ancillary characters. The action is where the ladies are. And I think that makes it something different, something worth watching.

So yeah--like Weeds, but better. Binge-watch it today!

Later Days.

1 comment:

RPP said...

M and I watched the pilot for Orange is the New Black a couple weeks ago. Seems pretty alright. Pretty much enjoyed Weeds until they left the suburbs, where it seemed to flounder a bit.