Netflix Original Series are the new rage. The same way the hula hoop and calling your enemies a Communist were popular in the 1950s, skipping the networks and going straight to producing a show exclusively for Netflix is one option for production companies. Jenji Kohan’s follow-up to the popular Showtime show ‘Weeds’ is one of the shows that went this route. The show, ‘Orange is the New Black.’
The series is a memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman. Undoubtedly the show’s premise is unique. It’s not every day we see a television show about a woman’s prison. The real question is why after succeeding for a decade with ‘Weeds’ on Showtime was another show by the same creator unable to be broadcast the traditional way. Excluding behind the scenes semantics or actual decisions on what was best for the show, I believe ‘Orange is the New Black’ was just not good enough for cable.
Often times while watching the show it feels more like an episode of Sex and the City than anything else. The prison atmosphere has very little danger. The inmates get along better than most girls in high school do with their biggest rival. The feeling of being trapped is never present in the show, an essential for any program based in a prison. Prisons are supposed to be dangerous. Years are being taken away from these women and it’s not exactly the most fun place to be. The element of loneliness and fear quickly dissipate from the show’s motif. Never did I imagine women locked up would have as many dance parties as these ones do. It makes the whole experience feel less important that they ever leave this camp-like incarceration.
While the show is not a straight-up comedy, the show is hardly funny at all. We have funny moments on occasion, as was the case with ‘Weeds.’ There are way too many jokes that fall flat on ‘Orange is the New Black.’ We get a Judd Apatow approach to humor sometimes; characters trying harder to make each other laugh than the audience. One can never fault a show for not being funny enough as senses of humor differ from person to person. It’s the awkward moments of watching an already failed premise continue to go on that bothers me. ‘Orange is the New Black’ has too many jokes that make me roll my eyes. Even when it’s not funny, I like to be able to understand why others might enjoy the joke. On this show, everything feels forced.
A big problem why this show was not good enough for cable are the characters. The USA Network welcomes characters with open arms and I have a feeling if a watered down version of this show was to ever try to come over they would have an excuse why they cannot come inside. A show like this that relies more on one setting than multiple locations requires great memorable characters. You cannot have a successful show like this where fans refer to them as “the Spanish girl,” “the fat one,” or “the fat Spanish one.” Not every character has to be largely unique, especially based on true events, but the name needs to be established more than a caricature of everyone. In films this is acceptable. For example, ‘Saving Private Ryan’ was perfectly cast. Each soldier had a unique and different look or backstory where we were not required to know their names. In a movie we can manage. In a series this becomes a little annoying when characters talk about each other by name.
As far as the characters themselves go, many are weak. Again, it’s not necessary for every character to be a pop-culture sensation. What ‘Orange is the New Black’ lacks is anyone with the potential to become one.
Perhaps the biggest issue with why this was not good enough for cable is the story itself. A neurotic Jason Biggs playing the same character he plays in everything has to wait for his wife on the outside as she serves her prison sentence for something he had no idea she had done. The story is simple enough, but also limited. Worse are the side stories. The love story between a Hispanic inmate and the correctional officer completely wastes our time. Their attraction feels phony and the actors are void of chemistry. The story goes nowhere and seems to spin around in circles. They remind each other what they are doing is wrong over and over again, and this is the extent of their relationship. This is not romantic. This is filling up space.
The show’s structure is similar to another prison show, Oz. Multiple storylines are going on at once while focusing on the main one we are introduced to that got us here in the first place. When a show has storylines crossing over each other like this does, it’s important that we actually care about them. Other than the fact that Yoga Jones is the voice of Patti Mayonnaise from ‘Doug’, there is very little reason to care about where these characters go.
‘Orange is the New Black’ is certainly not a bad show. Many people enjoy it and there are memorable moments. Things may have been better in a half-hour format, instead of trying to fill up space over an hour. It will be interesting to see how the second season progresses or if it remains stale.