Thursday, August 29, 2013

Orange is the New Black is the New Must-See TV

So, uh, raise your hand if you expected your favourite shows this year to come from Netflix.

Raise your hand if you expected to be able to sit down and watch thirteen hours of quality television, on demand, whenever you felt like it. In the middle of the night. When you have the sniffles and need a day on the couch. Maybe, if you're old school, you've been spreading them out, a few episodes each week; if you're really old-school, you might only be watching one episode a week, like they did in the 1980s, those Dark Ages.

We've had Tivo for a long time now (since the '90s = forever), so we're used to being able to pause our shows and come back after we get an ice cream sandwhich from the kitchen. And we've gotten used to paying for must-see TV — HBO has trained us well —and expecting stars to occasionally pop up. Hello, Steve Buscemi! I see you, playing a gangster! You're adorable. (Call me!)

When Netflix said it would begin offering original programming, I was skeptical. Netflix routinely recommends titles like, I don't know, Bachelor Party in the Bungalow of the Damned, so I was worried that we were going to end up with some truly execrable television experiences. I've seen Two and a Half Men. I know what television producers are capable of.

I ignored Lilyhammer, Netflix's first original offering. I saw a few print ads for it, and read a couple reviews, but there was nothing that said "Must-See TV!" It was impossible to ignore the next few original series, though: House of Cards was uniformly admired, and the return of Arrested Development was one of the most anticipated media events of the last few years. Suddenly, Netflix was a media darling: innovative, fresh, and catering the type of audience who binge watches entire seasons of New Girl in less than a week.

So, you know: everyone.

Now, with Orange is the New Black, I think the media entity? programmer? hitting its stride. OITNB is funny, it's well-written and (mostly) well-acted, which are pre-requisites for any classic show; since it was created by Jenji Kohan, the brains behind Weeds, I'm not surprised. And it can't be denied that Kohan has a knack for catchy theme songs.

But OITNB is more than that: while Piper Chapman, the nice white lady who goes to jail, is the series's theoretical center, the show is most effective when it's focusing on the other characters. Why? Because their stories are stories we haven't seen before. (I know it seems crazy, but it turns out there's more to feminism than white ladies! Who knew?!) We get to see a lot of upper-East-Side white ladies who run cupcake shops/artesian lotion start-ups/gluten-free consulting firms in movies (ex: every romantic comedy ever produced), but we don't get to see a lot of Black women, or trans women, or lesbians, or drug addicts, or immigrants. At best, they're relegated to the sassy receptionist/real-talk best friend role; at worst, they're just not in the picture.

So getting a whole bunch of them, in one place? With backstories and everything? What a treat. Seriously. I love Nicki, the mouthy, matted-haired lesbian/recovering junkie; I love the love-hate relationship between Daya and her volatile mother; I love Poussay and Tastee's genuine affection and unspoken, totally heterosexual love for each other. I love seeing trans actress Laverne Cox as trans prisoner Sophia Burset. I love that neither Cox or Sophia's trans-ness is erased or marginalized, but I also love that there's more to Sophia than her being trans: she's smart, and pushes for better health care inside the prison. I love that. And it doesn't matter what colour those characters are. I mean, it does, because, you know: identities and cultures and politics. But their ethnicities and sexual orientations and gender genesis don't preclude them from being interesting to watch onscreen, right? Which seems to be a radical idea, but it shouldn't be.

Piper Chapman is not a particular compelling character, and her hook — how did this nice lady who is Just Like Us end up in prison? — dissolved the second she told her disbelieving mother than she was no better than any other prisoner, and that she actually deserved to be there. True say. Now get out of the way, because there are other, more interesting stories to tell.