Jenny Diski on ‘Orange Is the New Black’
There was a flurry of excitement when the second series of Orange Is the New Black arrived fully formed on Netflix. People set out their binge snacks to binge watch. I was feeling bitter at not having seen True Detective, as everyone had who was either American or hadn’t set their face against giving Rupert Murdoch another sou to get Sky Atlantic, on which most of the things I like to watch are now shown. But I have got Netflix (for all I know owned by Murdoch’s more evil twin), and I’d already watched the first three episodes of OITNB when the original wave of excitement slurped over the sides of the internet. After those three, rather than stopping, I just failed to watch any more. It was amusing, engaging, smart, like the other show written by Jenji Kohan, Weeds, which was also taken up with a pretty white lady who finds herself a making an indecent living out of selling illegal drugs. But OITNB wasn’t compelling enough to make me fire up the Apple TV thing to see the rest of the first series. Yet, the talk got louder: it wasn’t just witty and warm (always a worry), but celebrating the great diversity of American womanhood and all the colours, races and degrees of deprivation and humanity it encompassed. So because I hated being the kid in the playground who is always catching up with the last craze while everyone else is on to the next, I sat myself down to binge watch the rest of series 1 and all of series 2. Late, but not too late to experience the down and dirty of wrecked lives and the loving togetherness of women who couldn’t get away from each other, with the little thrill at its centre of the posh girl with everything being forced to mix it and regularly falling flat on her face.
I finished OITNB because I’d started, but I’ve ended up baffled by the lack of criticism. It’s easy enough to get carried along from episode to episode. The show is a repertory piece, and a masterclass on how to manipulate the viewer with capsule narratives that lead to regular delicious paroxysms of love and hate. Within the walls of the fictional Litchfield Prison there are heroes and villains in multiple storylines and crosscurrents to boo and cheer, but, crucially, because heartwarming is almost always lurking in the wings of any so-called tough US drama, the bad gals, having done their worst, are sooner or later shown to have a gentler, humane side, often brought out by our heroine, Piper, the Wasp, whose fine, blonde hair never seems to suffer from being washed in fetid shit-spewing showers. She is there for us to enjoy watching as she suffers for her privilege, and then as an enabler, with her skills and education, to bring out the kindness in people you might want to hide from under the bed. The Waspy smarts and regular income from home that enable her to buy goodies to placate her foes are there to show us the human underside of the beast. She’s starved by Red, the Russian badass in charge of the kitchen, but ends up sharing a cubicle with her and softening her heart with a soothing homemade remedy for Red’s aching back. Piper makes enemies, but only to show that there is a good side to anyone as long as they come across an educated, privileged white woman, who like Glinda the Good sprinkles her fairy dust over the meanest of the mean. Even the white trash born-again psychotic, Pennsatucky, who gets nearest to killing our heroine, ends up on the wrong end of Piper’s astonishingly murderous fists, and becomes a pussy cat, happy to give her adversary a hug.
This is all fine and uplifting, until you start thinking about the show’s black population. It doesn’t seem possible for a knowing US TV drama to be overtly racist, but it’s impossible not to notice that the only irredeemable characters and spineless bullies are in the African American group. Just two black characters stand out from the mob mentality; the others are seen to succumb to and then run from when it gets dangerous. Sophia, the fireman turned transgender woman, stands above all the dramas, dressing everyone’s hair, serene, courageous, but churning with underlying loss; and the sweetly vulnerable Poussay, working in the library and loving Taystee, pleased to be a friend but not a lover, is uniquely able to resist the murderously maternal drug queen, Vee. Taystee, having been part of Fagin-like Vee’s gang of young people on the outside, goes over to her when she arrives in Danbury, and betrays her friendship with Poussay at the snap of Vee’s fingers. So do all the other African Americans, who, with just a little flattery and a promise of privileges, become her trusty drug runners and muscle. Black Cindy, already shown in flashback to be a bully, becomes Vee’s mocking lieutenant. The nice but easily-led athlete, Janae, just falls in line with the strongest current, as she did on the outside. Saddest of all, Crazy Eyes, an educated but mentally unstable inmate who in the first season falls for Piper and is touching in her hapless love, goes over to Vee with a vengeance, and is soon viciously dealing out beatings to anyone who crosses her mentor. Vee is the wickedest of the wicked, cartoon evil, Vee for very dangerous, using and schmoozing everyone she wants on her side, prepared to kill and maim those who get in her way, until she finally overreaches herself and loses her power. It isn’t that her gang comes good, but that Vee is by now too madly bad for even the gullible to follow. Taystee and the others turn against her with all the self-serving venom they applied in her service. All the other groups – the Latinas, the lesbians, the poor white trash (just the one tiny grumpy Asian lady) – have their dramas and morality tales, but only the African Americans are shown to be arrogant bullies relying on and rejoicing in brute force and fear to maintain their hegemony. I kept telling myself that it couldn’t be as overtly racist as I was seeing, but I couldn’t see how it wasn’t.
So there is half the Western hemisphere cooing over this manipulative soap, almost as cunningly fashioned and seductive as Vee’s plots. It’s today’s Peyton Place, lots of characters to turn to, to favourite, to worry about, all together in one stress-filled environment. If not Peyton Place, then certainly a school drama: the warders might as well be powerful unfair teachers, and there’s even a wicked lady deputy warden skimming the prison funds, for everyone to hate. Poor Bennett, the decent guard with the wooden leg, who falls for inmate Daya and plans to marry her and be a good father to their baby when she gets out, is essentially weak and morally dubious, and at the mercy of the rules and regulations. Inmates are pupils, the uniform is orange or buff instead of blue and green school colours, and, as in any institution, there are inmate rules that the neophyte must learn, initiation rituals, playground gangs, trustees. Tom Brown’s Schooldays brought bang up to date. It’s a prison, it’s a school, it’s a nunnery (has anyone done a convent soap?). It’s women together, menstruating, sharing, manless (mostly), all female humanity showing itself to be essentially decent under the most restrictive of circumstances – apart from the African Americans. It’s soft-centred enough for binge-watching, but there’s lots of viciousness and bullying to jeer and cheer along the way, just like an Angela Brazil story or Audrey Hepburn finding her feet as a postulant nun. Middle-class Piper, the Smith graduate, learns the ropes of the classes below her, and is there on our behalf to put herself, and our image of ourselves, to the test. As if a Smith graduate could fail. I wonder how many black women watch the show. Do they screen it in women’s prisons? It would certainly go down a treat in men’s prisons.
In her original book, Piper Kerman, who becomes Piper Chapman in the series, serves up her stories of crazy characters and the heroine-in-the-wrong-place having to survive, with a substantial helping of information and statistics about the American penal system in general, and particularly with regard to incarcerated women. In the show, some of the characters’ backstories suggest in very broad strokes the social and racial deprivations that have been the lives of the prison population, but mostly the flashbacks are annoying and get in the way of the present-tense vendettas and love stories that we want to push on with. Piper Kerman’s own background made it inevitable that she would write a book about her experience of being an outsider-participant and witness in society’s underbelly. That it would be published, and made into a wildly popular series, was something most of her fellow inmates couldn’t have achieved. But the book doesn’t seem nearly as exploitative as the series. Of course, things have to change to become a TV show. I’m sure they would say that you can’t bang on about wretched life chances and educational sink holes without losing most of your audience (although The Wire managed to do it). The story arc is queen and must move right along. In her acknowledgments, Kerman thanks ‘my husband Larry Smith whose ferociously stubborn love sustains me and without whom I would not have written this book.’ Lucky in life, lucky in love. But any decent scriptwriter would know what has to be done. In the second series, Piper Chapman’s fiancé, Larry Bloom (Smith wasn’t Jewish enough, I suppose), a dreary wimp who it is impossible to imagine any woman sticking with for more than a single date, decides that he can’t tolerate his wife-to-be having a ‘gay for the stay’ affair with the woman, now in the same prison, who got her incarcerated, and Larry is astonished to find that he is, after all, in love with Piper’s best friend, Polly. They go hand in hand on visiting day to ask for Piper’s blessing. Without a lost love and lost best friend, the scriptwriters must have thought, Piper – always the Wasp – would be too thin a character to keep our interest among all those exotics. There’s one episode in which she doesn’t appear at all, and she isn’t missed. So she’s given some extra punishment that real life failed to dish out, a greater existential trial than her fellow inmates, who have nothing much to lose in their lives anyway. The show eviscerates the book of its challenging intentions, and adds the maudlin Piper story to pep up what was clearly written to alert the American public to their broken social welfare and prison system. But who would want to binge on that?