A 13-part Netflix Original series, Orange is the New Black is about a WASP princess, Piper (Taylor Schilling), whisked from her engagement to a myopic dork (Jason Biggs), and thrown into the crucible of federal prison for a 15 month stretch (for a ten year-old felony). Biggs’ dork is an aspiring journalist who sincerely believes he’s the one suffering the most since with his girl in the clink he has to masturbate more than usual, and this is the angle with which he pitches the story to NY Times and NPR. Thanks to some kind of parental connection, he gets on all of them, though ends up feeling almost jealous that they care more about her story than his. But we do care about this jail, because Piper’s fellow prisoners are all brilliantly acted, especially Laura Prepon as Piper’s ex-lover, the one who got her into the whole felony thing in the first place. Drama: ensue!
The occasional checking in with Biggs reminds us regularly of the lost soul sense of high-end consumerism. Expensive items seem drained of meaning the minute you buy them, but in jail every contraband Snickers bar is priceless. An occasional Dunkin Donut goes down like crack, sublime ecstasies and where full bore acting, pacing, writing, and vividly etched interrelationships come together like a steel trap. Better a steel trap, sometimes, than no trap at all; at least with the trap it means someone cares enough to be out to get you.
We’re introduced to the horrors of jail slowly, and like James Dean’s dumb mooing at the planetarium, a new kid terrified first day at a transfer school bluff sets a whole chain of bitter reality in motion: ‘good’ intentions are exposed as masochistic indulgences and confession is an out for weaklings who can’t stomach constant paranoia. An absence of censorship or HBO’s rough raw sex directive, or having to put out for guardians of morals or paid advertisers, free from the confines of the 90 minute full arc Sundance format, or the 42 minute hour-long episode format, enables the show to explore the consequences of living in real time, and thus exposing the real end game fantasia of materialism as nothing less than bribing your way out of the moment. Orange critiques the way softness and ease, the plethora of technology and availability, makes people’s own lives inconsequential, the way we go about treating minor issues like major traumas and major traumas as passive spectacles.
In Orange we learn that jail is the molten mirror that reflects our true Dorian Gray face once we’re denied the massive barriers of internet, kindles, video games, cell phones, and iPads that usually block it from us. We pay taxes and work hard in our cubicle cages all for the avoidance of that face but stripped of our walls, as princess Piper learns, all those passive aggressive tricks no longer work. You have to become nakedly aggressive, even physically so, just to survive and eke out the minimum necessary comforts to get even a few hours sleep. Inmates work for 30 cents an hour and can use commissary credit to buy airplane-size toiletries which become the bartering system tokens of exchange. The lack of available luxury commodities, paid with credit cards, the bills of which go direct to rich parents or boyfriends, means those problems buried beneath layers of small talk and foodie bourgeois banality can no longer stay down under the loam.
The internet has jailed a lot of us, anyway, and watching the entire 13 hour-long episodes over the course of a weekend might work like a scared-straight program, especially when you look around and realize your intimate friend circle is tightening by the day as more of us succumb to an internet hermitage, unable to even communicate except through e-mails or in the rhythms of reality TV, suddenly all your life is used up waiting for something real to happen to someone else so you can gawk at it.
What’s funny is that now I feel like I need to talk about this show, maybe with a counsellor or friend, to boast of having seen it like a tough kid on the playground. As a kid in the 70s you made tribes around your favorite shows, and relating the plots to kids too young to stay up and see them. I never forgave my parents for making me go to bed before S.W.A.T., but I loved hearing about it the next day, and imagining something far grander than the show could have ever provided. On the other side, even if all your friends are over to watch something in today’s post-modern miasma, will they all be able to pay attention, or gradually drift off towards important texts, or if you have a family, the kids never have to endure your TV choices, they just pop in their ear buds and disappear without even leaving the room. I am alone in my traumatized experience of this 13 hour film, imprisoned in ways the communal sisters bound in shared experience in minimum security prisons are spared from.
This is how our modern over abundance of media options and communications methods quietly silence us, removing any chance of common ground (even in the movie theater, of course, there is the texting blue glow) films have to be loud and in your face every second, constantly upping the ante like a penny dreadful or Republic serial, louder and louder, to drown out phone vibrations and shouts, parents oblivious to sweet talkers with lying profiles wooing them right out from under your nose without you ever knowing they were there. Having seen all of Orange I now have more in common with some stranger who just saw it all too, in Denver, or Sri Lanka, than I do with someone on the same couch who was watching the entire X-Men series all day on his iPad.
Just a few centuries ago, a village lived and moved as one, and were overjoyed when a circus or minstrel came strolling through town. Without these visitors there would be no music or theater. And so every musician and actor could get a full house in ways no one can today…. outside of jail of course, or a remote military base.
But go on YouTube and the millions of caged suburban voices come crooning out from their gray drywall and beige paint garage annexes on the latest digital technology, each a god in his or her own mind. So why ever come out of hiding and expose the ugly shrunken toad form your Adonis soul is trapped in? You’ve been caged in limitless freedom too long, my friend. What Larry, the entitled ‘normie’ fiancee, eventually decides is the first smart thing he ever does, the first ballsy choice, but what he doesn’t realize is how his using Piper to get on NPR gives her more power than it does him. Once he cuts her loose he ceases to be viable.
|If only watching Sullivan’s Travels / how meta that would be|
When the prisoners watch a movie, it is on the projector but silently connected through headphones. Piper is shut out, not daring to ask for some, until she accepts an ear bud from a smiling, smitten psychotic stranger. That’s part of the nightmare that registers most for me: even if we are merely watching, trying not get involved, even we wonder the consequences implied just merely viewing what we view, what we are lying to ourselves about, and why our unconscious mind is so quick to cover up our weak spots for us (as if some over-protective prison wife, eyeballing even your most benevolent self-realization back under the floorboards), we learn from Piper’s bitter experience that no one performs such an ongoing “favor” as bud-sharing without expecting payback. What does our subconscious want from us, for its patient burying years of painful self-knowledge deep in our shared brain basement? When it comes, brother, you’ll know…. after 13 hours with Orange, you’ll finally know. God help you.