This Sunday, ’round about 11:00 PM, a decently-sized portion of the population will be gaping at their televisions, wide-eyed, half-shouting some variation of “Holy Crap!”
HBO’s Game of Thrones will be ending its fifth season around that time, and the show has a knack for gobsmacking audiences (although it isn’t like the show needs an excuse like a season finale to shock people; the Red Wedding happened in the second-to-last episode of season three). There’s no doubt that it’ll be up to its old tricks when Sunday night rolls around.
By 11:07 PM though, we gluttons for good serialized drama will be pining over the end of another season of GoT and waiting the painful week before True Detective returns with its new cast (side note: casting Vince Vaughan was a piece of sly genius; don’t let anyone tell you different).
Might I suggest sating your pulsing hunger for backstabbing, territorial disputes, morally complex characters, disturbing violence, and consistent sartorial vacancy (that’s pedantic for nudity) with something just a little different?
I might? Oh, joy! Well, then here goes: WATCH ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK!
Pardon me for shouting. How rude. You go and give me a chance to suggest something to you and I muck it up by going all caps. Sorry. Really. It’s just that I was worried that you had it in your head that OitNB was “that lady prison show” and you’d already dismissed it. And maybe that’s unfair, but it feels like a lot of the conversations I’ve had (with guys, mostly, but not exclusively) surrounding OitNB start with the following kind of exchange:
Me: “Yeah, it’s great. Have you seen it?”
Other Person (usually a dude): “Wweeeeehhhhhhhhhhheeeeeeeeeeellllllllll…”
I translate this response/guttural noise differently depending upon context, but a couple of factors are almost certainly contributing in some way to the hesitancy it communicates.
1. Orange is the New Black is a show that is almost entirely about women. There are male characters, and they sometimes have important roles to play, but 90% of what happens onscreen is about female characters and their stories. I’d like to believe that people (maybe mostly dudes, but not exclusively) who’ve rejected the show without watching it haven’t done so just because it’s essentially the inverse of nearly every other major drama on television, but it’s probably naive to think that’s true. (There are, after all, groups of men in the world who actually think that the world is out to get them and that they’re being disadvantaged in some meaningful way.) It’s also probably naive to think that the show’s diversity hasn’t played some role. To wit:
2. Gay characters, transgender characters, and people of color are a part of the show’s DNA. Yes, I know it’s 2015. I saw Caitlyn Jenner’s photo shoot too. Attitudes are changing. Still, frank discussions about or depictions of homosexuality, gender, and race make a lot of people uncomfortable. Fine. Discomfort is a natural part of developing understanding and empathy. Heck, soccer made me uncomfortable until I actually started watching it with the intention of understanding (rather than lazily ridiculing) it.
But an amazing thing happens when we stop making assumptions about other people and actually try to engage with the world the way they experience it. One of the cool (and rare) things about OitNB is that many of the gay characters are played by gay actors. Laverne Cox, a transgender woman, plays the transgender Sophia on the show. The people of color are actually people of color (which you think would be a no-brainer but how often has Hollywood cast white people in non-white roles; hi Cameron Crowe). OitNB gives voice to marginalized people. This is important, even if it means that what those voices say doesn’t fit neatly into the vision of the world held by those of us fortunate enough not to be one of them. Roger Ebert once said that movies are empathy machines. I’d argue that the same applies to stories in general, so Orange is the New Black is an empathy machine too. It’s impossible to watch it without evaluating our assumptions (about race, class, gender, sexuality, and, not least of all, the many tragedies of our criminal justice and prison systems).
Any show that can challenge its viewers like that (while also making them cackle and tear up in equal measure) should be given a chance.
If you’re already on the bandwagon, I hope that what I’ve written reflects in some small way what is true and awesome about OitNB. Maybe you’re all already watching it and I was a fool to think otherwise. But if you aren’t, I hope you’ll hop on.
Seasons one and two of Orange is the New Black are currently streaming on Netflix. Season three debuts this Friday, June 12.