Sunday, July 14, 2013

Media: Orange is still orange

The internet offered so many possibilities but quickly, as many mediums before, became about seeing people naked.  We guess that could be seen as progress: People.


In previous mediums, it's largely been women.   So the fact that, every now and then, for a micro-second or two, a male's ass flashes on the screen might be seen as progress.

And maybe some can be really generous and argue that exploiting women, when it's done by other women, is also progress.


Not us.  Because when a woman's forced to work the streets, the gender of her pimp really isn't the issue.

We felt that way repeatedly while streaming all 13 episodes of Orange Is The New Black.

Jenji Kohan has tremendous talent.  She created Weeds which was breakthrough TV.  There's nothing breakthrough about OITNB.

You keep hoping there will be.

Piper (Taylor Schilling) and Larry (Jason Biggs) are living together and planning their future when the law shows up because someone's ratted Piper out on what she did years earlier -- drug mule.

That was right after college when she was applying to be a waitress and met Alex (Laura Prepon) who worked for an international drug cartel.  It's off to prison ("Prison, not jail," she tells her friend Polly -- played by Maria Dizzia) and she's not sure what she can handle.

In the prison, she quickly pisses off Red (Kate Mulgrew) by insulting the cooking (not realizing Red runs the kitchen), Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) lets Piper use her ear buds and then decides this makes them married and Piper her wife and her homophobic case worker Sam Healy (Michal J. Harney) doesn't know about Piper's past with Alex and sees it as his duty to ensure that Piper doesn't 'turn lesbian' while serving her sentence.

She makes it through assorted struggles, such as Red refusing to serve her any  meals and we're supposed to see it as cute and plucky.  With Red, she gets some hot peppers (by bartering) and some other ingredients and makes a lotion that will help with Red's back pain.  She knows how to make lotions because she and Polly have their own lotions business.  And Red feels better and takes Piper off the hunger strike.  (While on it, Piper flashes back to when she and Larry were on a cleanse.)

At last food for Piper!!!

But we're left thinking, "Who the hell cares?"

We don't find the way she treats Susanna amusing either.  That's "Crazy Eyes."  We could tolerate the way Piper repeatedly looks down on Susanna were it part of the character.  But it's not part of the character, it's the tone of the show.

And this tone really does not work.

It's smug and condescending and it's coming from the woman who will not have a hard post-prison life.  So when Piper's being smug and rude (and the tone of the show is as well), it plays a lot like White Woman Goes To Prison To Laugh At Others.

The fact that none of the non-Anglo Whites really gets a storyline that matters adds to the pompous nature.

Susanna's not always on, the track star is on and off so much you forget her from episode to episode.  Others disappear for entire episodes.  The only African-American who registers is Laverne Cox who plays Sophia. Sophia's loud and alive.  And in prison, that means some will try to destroy her.  When her needed meds are denied her, it registers because Cox provides a full fledged character.  But even with  Cox's amazing performance, she's repeatedly stripped of her integrity as the show preaches Listen To A White Woman over and over.

In Sophia's case, her wife has fallen in love with a preacher and the preacher's also nice to Sophia's son Michael.  It's left to a White nun in prison for political activism to talk Sophia into acceptance of what's happening.

You could argue that the theme for the African-American characters is that they are always victims -- victims of falling for the wrong person (like Susanna falling for Piper or the track star falling for a guy who let her take the fall for robbery), victims of falling for dead-ends when something else seems more frightening (such as the prisoner who returns to prison because life on the outside is too scary), it happens over and over.

By contrast, the Latinas are victims who actively attempt to respond by thinking their way out of problems.  Apparently, because they're Anglo Latina and not Anglo White, they don't think too well.

So when Daya (Dascha Polanco) ends up pregnant by prison guard  Bennett (Matt McGorry) and her mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez) -- also in the same prison -- convinces her to have the baby, the 'answer' is for Daya to have sex with another guard to throw suspicion off Bennett when Daya begins showing.

Huffington Post quotes Jenji Kohan stating:

I don’t set out to write female lead shows, necessarily. I like deeply flawed characters. When they come to me, or when I’m introduced to them, I follow the stories and the people, rather than setting out to do a female lead thing… And when I read Piper Kerman’s book, I thought, “This is a way into a really interesting world. It’s the yuppie’s eye view to get you in there.” If you go to a network and say, “I wanna do prison stories about black women and Latino women and old women,” you’re not gonna make a sale. But, if you’ve got this blonde girl going to prison, you can get in there, and then you can tell all the stories. I just thought it was a terrific gateway drug into all the things I wanted to get into.

She has given parts to a very diverse group of performers.  But it's a shame that their talent is repeatedly undermined.  Wouldn't it be great if, for example, she could show an African-American solving the White nun's problems, for example?

Does nothing on the show work?

Individual scenes by the actresses we've named above (with one exception) work.

Laura Prepon is amazing.  A (White) woman vows revenge on Piper because Piper (and Alex) got the woman locked away in the psyche ward before Piper came forward with the truth.  Now the woman's out, Alex reminds her and Piper?  "She's cleaning toilets every morning like Private f**king Benjamin!"  In the scene, she gets across that Alex loves Piper, that Alex feels guilt (including for betraying Piper) and so much more.  When she blows up at Piper ("Is that what I am to you?  A f**king binky for you to suck on to feel better!"), it feels true and she lets just enough rage show that the point that no one hurts Alex more than Alex really comes across.

Natasha Lyonne (Nicky) is another one who's amazing.  Kate Mulgrew, Lea DeLaria, Laverne Cox and Dascha Polanco are part of an incredible cast and manage to stand out.  But Danielle Brooks . . .

The woman can act.  She can make you feel for her character.  But she's the one who gets paroled and comes back -- by choice. And that can happen but with the way the show works in the first 13 episodes and  so much more, Brooks is stuck with a storyline that makes an argument akin to "slavery wasn't all bad and many slaves loved it."

Taylor Schilling can't act -- no matter how much you expand the meaning of 'act.'  As the lead, she offers a third-rate impression of Mary-Louise Parker playing Nancy on Weeds.  It doesn't work and nothing about her does for most episodes.  It doesn't help that she's paired with Biggs who seems to have read a book on acting -- a pre-method book, one of those 'natural drama poses and expressions' books -- and it left him so drained that he's dull and boring.

Hint to Biggs, if you're not offering any surprises in your by-rote-performance, why are you involved in this project?

Jason Biggs has talent.  He's not showing it in this series.

To Huffington Post, Jenji Kohan explained the sugar she'd found that would help the medicine go down.

And, again, it is a racially and ethnically diverse cast.  And so that is a good thing.

But there's also a cost being paid.  Basically, Jenji sees herself as Piper and Netflix as Sam Healy in that she feels she has the upper hand and she's tricking them.

But what we're seeing is bunch of bare breasts, fingering, eating out in the shower and assorted other scenes that, if a male was behind this show, people would be screaming their heads off.

Orange Is The New Black is the first Netflix original series to feature women in important roles -- let alone in the main roles and composing the bulk of the cast.  But was it really necessary to trade on women's bodies to do that?

We can hear someone insisting, 'Women's bodies do not need to be hidden!'

And we're not saying they do.  But we are saying that exploitation is wrong.

Yes, there are many same-sex couples in female prisons.

But why is it that on Orange Is The New Black, the couples are always 'lipstick lesbians.'  Lyonne fingering Prepon, Prepon and Schilling having sex in the chapel, Lyonne eating out an attractive woman in the showers, . . .

Meanwhile, there's Lea DeLaria in the Jack McFarland role.  Like Jack on Will & Grace, Lea has a sexual past.  Past.  In an apparent consolation, they've given her a dog.  Seriously, she's in prison and has a dog.  But she doesn't have a girlfriend.  Lea's been a star for some time now and she became it with the force of her personality.  And that makes it even harder to accept that her Big Boo would go thirteen episodes without having sex with any other woman in the prison.

Even when a woman's in charge of a show, she's going to apply male heterosexual conceptions of beauty and sex appeal?  Orange Is The New Black isn't new at all.   It's Prisoner: Cell Block H but with lots of nudity and the sex is shown, not implied.

Since this review is going to piss off a lot of people (we're referring to friends with the show, not readers of this site), let's go ahead and say it: Is diversity even that applause worthy on this show?

Bunheads comes along with all White leads.  Few bat an eye.  But set a show in prison and we're all supposed to cut some slack for the diverse cast?  And we're also supposed to ignore that the show chooses to have Pepon and Schilling make out to a male vocalist?  (This is pre-prison.)  We're supposed to give credit there, too?  If you're doing a series that revolves around Piper and her (female) ex-lover, maybe you should have spent some time learning about Womyn's music?  At best, the show offers a  facade of equality.

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