Saturday, July 27, 2013

My Media Habits (Part 1): Orange Is The New Black

So according to this Buzzfeed, the (relatively) new Netflix-made series Orange Is The New Black is "one of the year’s best offerings on any platform." Unfortunately, I only watched the version that's available on Netflix, which is mediocre at best.

In this newish series, Piper Chapman, played by someone I can't be bothered to google, is a shallow ditz who got convinced to transport drug money for dubious reasons and is now, ten years later, sent to prison for having done so. So basically, it's a prison drama. Yeah, I'm not sure why I watched it either.

Now I'm not saying I have to like a protagonist (I've written protagonists more unlikeable than Piper) but a problem arises when most of the tagonists (of both "pro" and "an" varieties) are so shallow and uninteresting that I simply can't move myself to give half a shit about what happens to any of them. Am I supposed to care that a shallow ditz is thrown into an unforgiving environment and being slowly molded into a more aggressive ditz? My caring about her personal struggles was out the window the moment she was more concerned with her weight than the fact that she was about to go to prison. Some of the other characters have more depth (there's a transexual who stole credit cards to pay for her surgery, an old Russian lady with an interesting backstory, and a slaver and murderer who is somehow supposed to be sympathetic) but they're minor characters compared to Piper and her drug smuggling ex-girlfriend.

And here is the point at which my disconnect with the show becomes complete. I'm asexual (and aromantic, if that's actually a thing), and because of this, using "true love" as a character's motivation will always strike me as an Ass Pull. I know intellectually that a majority of the population are animals who will abandon all pretense of higher functioning at the suggestion that they might get to mate, but on the semi-emotional level of understanding characters and why they do what they're doing, it just doesn't work. This is problematic, because about 90% of the plot rests heavily upon this authorial crutch. Why does a seemingly intelligent man fawn over a ditzy bimbo who's about to go to prison? Because he wuvs her. Why does said ditzy bimbo jeopardise the relationship she wants so much to have a fling with the crazy criminal ex who sent her to prison? Because she wuvs her. Why does one of the guards risk his career and his freedom over a relationship with an inmate that's legally considered rape? Because he wuvs her. Time and again, characters do things so stupid and out of character you want to scream at the screen and strangle the writer and we're supposed to just roll with it because "love." Maybe it's different for the 99% of people who have a biologically hard-wired compulsion to do weird things with their genitals, but my suspension of disbelief is just not that big.

Incidentally, my asexuality also means that the large quantities of fanservice are instantly transformed into squick, giving the show a decidedly minefield-like nature and meaning the single one emotional reaction that dominated my experience was "oh god, I did NOT need to see that."

Credit where credit is due: The show makes a point of revealing backstories for even the more minor characters, all of which are more interesting than the primary characters anyway. It also pulls off the difficult task of creating a character so unlikeable that we might declare nothing to be too horrific for her only to put her in a situation that is clearly too horrific even for her— and which is apparently true to life for American prisons at that, so full marks there. When the characters are not being motivated by "love" for someone they hate or driven by the absurd coincidences that plague Netflix-original series, they actually tend to be strong and well-rounded; even the ditz gets a proper development arc although it's too little too late to make me actually start caring about her.

Unfortunately, its comparatively minor selling points don't outweigh the problems with the show. Even if you're willing to buy that someone will throw away everything they love and want to preserve or maintain a relationship with someone they hate because "love," the writers clearly need to do a bit more thinking about how people act and react. Ditziness notwithstanding, a person who is being literally starved to death over a petty prison dispute with an inmate cook goes to the authorities to request a transfer to another prison— but then refuses to say why and then backs out of the whole thing. Maybe this is just one of those weird emotional things I'm just not capable of picking up, but I would think that the desire to (a) eat and (b) not die should override the loyalty to or fear of someone you've literally met once. Yet she doesn't tell the authorities, or her lawyer. She tells her fiance, but he doesn't think to do anything about it (even though he proves himself more than capable of interceding on her behalf later). Then, she's offered food after having eaten literally nothing for the past 72 hours, and she throws it away out of fear/loyalty to the prison cook or spite for the ex-girlfriend who gave it to her, when she should by all rights be too hungry to think before eating it. Later, a misplaced screwdriver creates a massive kerfluffle, and upon realising she inadvertently took it, she goes through an entire episode's worth of machinations to hide it and to try and return it secretly rather than turning it in at the earliest possible opportunity; it's not like the prison staff have proven so unreasonable that they'd overreact to an honest mistake.

Then, of course, there's the Netflix Coincidence problem; the tendency of Netflix-original shows to rely on absurdly contrived coincidences. She just happens to have a lawyer who's not good enough to get a fairly weak case against her dropped. Her crazy ex just happens to be in the same prison she is. The less that's said about the chicken, the better.

One other thing, the Buzzfeed article mentions the following little tidbit: "While love isn’t a word I’d apply to Pablo Schreiber’s sadistic prison guard, George “Pornstache” Mendez, even he displays an unexpected soft side." Apparently, that part was in the Buzzfeed-only version of the show because the closest I saw to that in the Netflix version was decidedly the opposite— the character is outwardly creepy and disgusting ("rapist"), but when he gets drunk and starts making tearful confessions, he reveals that he's actually a complete sociopath ("rapist who complains his victims don't appreciate him as a person") as well. So maybe Buzzfeed's Jace Lacob liked the show because he's a robot with a prototype emotion chip that still has some kinks to work out.

Rating Summary:

Medium: Television.
Genre: Prison Drama
Availability: Netflix
Bechdel Compliance: Yes
Rating: 5 to 15 years for assault and battery on my sensibilities and tastes.

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