As promised, here is my conference paper on Orange is the New Black and how Netflix uses the intimacy of the medium to create a feminist serial. This is the second of four posts I’m writing as part of 826 Boston’s Write-a-thon. Please visit my page and support this amazing organization!
I’m hoping to revise this and try to publish it, so I’d really appreciate any comments/questions.
Television has always had a bit of a chip on its shoulder. From “golden age” shows that performed canonical theatrical works to HBO’s erstwhile slogan “It’s not TV,” television has continually pretended to be something it’s not. For instance, David Chase worked hard to distance The Sopranos from the déclassé taint of television, assuring his audience in interviews that he saw the show as a series of short films, not a television series. David Simon, along with a slew of academics, describes The Wire as “novelistic.” All these strategies demonstrate a deep insecurity about the television series and its place in the larger culture.
Perhaps thanks to HBO and its success in creating and branding “Quality Television,” TV has come to gain a great deal of cultural legitimacy over the course of the last ten years, to the point where the New Yorker has a regular television columnist and the newest HBO show to capture the popular imagination, True Detective, stars two film actors, one of which just won an Academy Award for best actor. I’m not sure you can get much more solid middlebrow credentials than an Oscar.
But perhaps the greatest sign of the medium’s cultural legitimacy isn’t the beautifully framed shots of Mad Men or the college courses on The Wire, but the fact that the form now has its own pretenders, courtesy of the internet. The streaming services Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime all feature original programming, which they call “television shows,” and Netflix in particular works hard for these narratives to be seen as equivalent to traditional TV, entering them in contests for Emmys and Golden Globes and listing the series alongside network shows in its library. However, if we define media forms at least in part by their mode of distribution, then these narratives can’t be called television at all. If, as Raymond Williams claims, television is defined by the uninterrupted “flow” from programming to commercial break that discourages viewers from changing the channel, then series from streaming services disrupt the very nature of the form. Netflix series are released all at once, but divided into a series of episodes of roughly equal length, and the shows themselves utilize so many of the formal strategies of television serial narratives that they seem almost parodic. In this way, Netflix forms a kind of fun-house mirror for HBO’s self-aggrandizing claim that “it’s not TV.” While Netflix is, in fact, not television at all, its unspoken slogan seems to be “more TV than TV.”
One place where this doubling down on the televisual quality of narrative is particularly apparent is in Netflix series’ investment in creating a phenomenon of craving in viewers, one that is strangely uncoupled from television’s historical economic motivations for creating suspenseful programming. Netflix series are perhaps best known for their “binge-worthiness,” and the simultaneous release of twelve- and thirteen-hour series leads stars of one Netflix show to make jokes about the others like “There should be a warning halfway through [House of Cards] that is like, ‘Change your underpants.’” This binge-worthiness is largely caused by the centrality of cliffhangers to the narrative’s episodic structure. In a network model, the cliffhanger before a commercial or episodic break worked to ensure that the viewer stayed on the same channel through the advertisements—or the show itself was sponsored by an advertiser, so the viewer’s return to the narrative week after week also promised a specific economic “return.” The simultaneous release of entire series suggests that Netflix doesn’t need readers to “stay put” in this way. Why, then, do its shows look so much like serial television?
Ultimately, I think the answer to this question is about affection. One thing that serial narratives are peerlessly good at is getting their viewers to fall in love with these fictional worlds and imaginary people. I’ve argued elsewhere that the structure of serials, particularly the centrality of the episodic break to the shape of the narrative, is instrumental in forming the obsessive, fannish attention that has characterized the genre from Little Nell to Erica Kane to Laura Palmer.
One show that has achieved helped Netflix establish its brand as a provider of addictive television and that has received uniformly positive critical feedback is Orange is the New Black, a darkly comedic fish-out-of-water story of a Smith-educated upper-class WASP who spends a year in a minimum-security prison. The show is based on the memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman, but parts from its source material by adding a hefty dose of melodrama. Put another way, it changes the memoir into a soap opera, and does so by adopting the central strategies of the serial narrative: episodic structure, suspenseful plotting (especially its reliance on cliffhanger endings), sprawling casts of characters, and melodramatic plotting. Most interestingly, the show shifts its attention away from the violence that so many “Quality TV” shows use to distinguish themselves from the hoi polloi of broadcast television. Instead, Orange is the New Black emphasizes the feminine concerns of intimacy, both on the level of plot and in its adoption of the serial tropes that elicit the kind of readerly devotion that leads to binge-viewing.
The show’s most obvious marker of seriality is so obvious that it almost goes without saying: the splitting of the narrative into hour-long episodes. The length of the narrative (roughly thirteen hours) does necessitate splitting it into manageable pieces, but the possibilities of the Netflix platform mean it is possible for episodes to be longer than a typical television episode (for instance, the Sundance series Top of the Lake featured two-hour episodes), or even to widely vary in length. The hour-long format aligns Orange is the New Black with a long history of network television drama, while also opening up the possibility that the episodes will be syndicated on a traditional network.
In his essay “Broken on Purpose,” Sean O’Sullivan argues for the formal importance of the serial gap: the art of the serial, he claims, “calls attention to itself as an array of parts; it is the art of fracture, of separation, and it is the art of the energy required to stitch together those pieces” (59). Netflix Instant’s user interface discourages viewers from lingering too long in these gaps, but the cliffhanger ending of every episode and the signature smash-cut to an orange screen that precedes the end credits highlight the segmented nature of the show, and encourages readers to invest interpretive energy into these serial breaks, even if they only have to wait fifteen seconds before the next episode begins to autoplay. The break signifies the kind of fannish attention that leads to “water cooler” buzz, even though the actual reader doesn’t have time to walk to the sink for a glass of water before the next episode begins. In this way, viewers get all the anticipatory pleasure with none of the pain of waiting. For this viewer, at least, the recurrence of the floating “Netflix Original Series” title card kicks off the same pleasure center associated with “the next one” in any binge (a new pack of cigarettes, a piece of candy, a game of computer solitaire): the sneaky voice in my head that tells me “just one more.”
While the cliffhanger plots and flashback structure acknowledges the influence of the groundbreakingly “addictive” serial show Lost, the show’s reliance on melodrama and coincidence gestures further back to the daytime soap. This can be seen most clearly in the central relationship between Piper and Alex Vause, her former lover and the woman who named her to the FBI—who just happens to be housed in the same facility. In Kerman’s memoir, she does end up rooming with the Alex character, but only when they’re transported to another facility, waiting to testify at the same trial; Kerman describes her as a “fireplug” with a “French bulldog face”—a far cry from veritable glamazon Laura Prepon. In the show, Alex’s presence at Litchfield is played for full melodramatic effect, and her initial confrontation of Piper is the shocking final image of the first episode, enticing the reader to come back for more.
The show’s reliance on melodrama is most apparent, however, in the story of Daya, an inmate who arrives the same day as Piper. Upon arrival, she discovers that her mother is also a prisoner there, and their initial meeting is highly dramatized, with her mother slapping her across the face and stomping away wordlessly. Daya’s romance with the prison guard Bennett is soapiest of all: the sentimental piano cues theme that accompanies every one of their scenes together encourages us to see their connection as a star-crossed romance instead of rape (which is what it really is, given that Daya is structurally incapable of giving consent).
The show also demonstrates its debt to soaps through its combination of multiple overlapping plots, all of which prioritize connection and relationality over power struggles. Alex and Piper, for instance, are only interested in each other, not in influence over other inmates. Prison cook Red seems like she might be an exception to this rule, but when her position of relative power is taken away, it’s clear immediately that any power she might have had was always contingent on the whims of the people above her in the hierarchical structure of the prison system. Furthermore, the narrative emphasis of her story is on her relationships with Nichols and her other prison “children.”
Melodramatic plotting is not the only story element that aligns Orange is the New Black with the soap; it also relies heavily on “stock characters,” or, in the immortal words of Maury Kind, the show’s Ira Glass stand-in, “prison tropes.” One of the most striking elements of the backstories we get is how violent so many of them are (at least three of the inmates we meet seem to be in for—or at least to have committed—murder). This stands in fairly stark contrast to the fact that non-violent offenders make up the vast majority of prisoners in actual minimum-security facilities (Orange is the New Black, 132). With this shift, the show loses the preoccupation with exposing the realities of prison life that so thoroughly motivates Kerman’s memoir.
When Larry is interviewed on NPR and relays Piper’s stories about all the “wacky inmates” she has met, however, the implications of relying on “prison tropes” to understand the story is turned back on the viewer. We see the “real” characters behind these tropes being devastated by Piper’s descriptions of them, and the show is thus able to problematize its reliance on the “fish-out-of-water” framework more successfully than the book ever could. For reasons clearly illustrated by Larry’s jackassery on NPR, Kerman is rightfully concerned in the memoir about the implications of her words on the real women with whom she was incarcerated—she thus goes to great lengths to present them in the best possible light, and to keep the reader’s focus on points of identification with all the prisoners, while also acknowledging her own position of privilege throughout.
But of course, it’s a double bind for Kerman—the greater lengths she goes to so she can respectfully present an insistently dehumanized population, the better she looks as an author and narrator, reifying her position of privilege in the narrative. With its thoroughly fictionalized characters, the show faces no such conundrum, and uses the structural device of shifting perspective not only to give agency to the other characters, but to trouble the reader’s potential identification with Piper. Show runner Jenji Kohan was frank in an NPR interview that Piper was her “Trojan Horse”: “you’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women and Latino women and old women and criminals. But you take this white girl, this fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all those other stories.” (NPR, Fresh Air, August 13, 2013).
The series may use Piper’s privilege as a way to draw viewers in, but by the end of the first season, it’s clear that Piper is in many ways worse than any of her fellow inmates. After Larry’s disastrous interview and a final confrontation with Alex where she is called out for playing Alex and Larry off each other for the entire season, it’s clear that Piper is, in her own words, “a selfish, manipulative, narcissist.” The final shot of the season uses the visual language of the horror genre to frame her as a monster: she’s shot from below as she’s mercilessly beating her fellow inmate Pennsatuckey.
Part of the reason that this final scene stands out so much is that Orange is the New Black otherwise shies away from depictions of violence. As I mentioned, there are unrealistically violent backstories that bring the women to Litchfield, but Piper’s early fears of getting shivved by her roommate are held up as an example of her problematic reliance on stereotypes, not reality. Pennsatuckey’s attack on Piper in the showers in the final episode is chilling, but that is partly true because it is so jarring. The show’s relative nonviolence is particularly clear when it is compared to other self-consciously “quality” television. In what might be the best-titled piece of academic criticism of all time, Brian Ott argues in his essay “Cocksucker, Motherfucker, Tits” that HBO uses explicit content, particularly profanity, nudity, and violence “as a way to position itself outside televisual normativity” (125). Violence, especially shocking moments of violence, has become one of the key signifiers of cinematic “quality” on cable dramas: whether it’s Tony Soprano garroting an FBI stoolie, a bathtub and decomposing body crashing through the ceiling in Breaking Bad, or a ritually posed murder victim in True Detective, intensely violent scenes demonstrate the lengths to which cable dramas are willing to go.
Orange is the New Black is also invested in a discourse of exceptionalism, but the gender and racial politics of its methods of distinguishing itself from its predecessors is notably different. The show’s Netflix home is linked to Piper’s effectiveness as a “Trojan horse”—much has been made of the freedom granted to showrunners at Netflix. Orange is the New Black was picked up for a full thirteen-episode season immediately, without the pressure of making a pilot first. In this way, Kohan had the freedom to shift the series’ attention to these background players without worrying about this decision being blamed for any possible dip in the show’s weekly ratings.
But if there’s a move that most parallels the early “distinguishing” scenes of violence that I mention earlier, it’s Orange is the New Black’s interest in toilets. Seriously, never in my life have I seen so many women peeing in a television series or a film. The series begins in a bathroom, as Piper is rushing through her first prison shower, and the first flashback scene features her sitting on the toilet and weeping the night before she leaves for Litchfield. The bathroom is a central plot location as well—the site of sex scenes between Nichols and Merullo as well as Piper and Alex, and Piper’s quest to find a time to use the toilet alone is a running thread throughout the season. When Piper rejects Suzanne’s romantic advances, Suzanne responds by peeing on the floor outside Piper’s bunk. Suzanne’s response is aggressive, but it’s an aggression based on blurring the boundaries of privacy, not on the threat of physical harm. Even the violence from the guards occurs in the register of intimacy—not just the nonconsensual sex enacted by prison guards Pornstache and Bennett, but one of Pornstache’s most chilling moment of violence and intimidation is when he pisses in the Thanksgiving gravy, reminding Red that any sense of power she might have over her kitchen and the prison more generally is an illusion.
Perhaps the most famous way that intimacy trumps violence in the show is in the fate of the misplaced screwdriver that causes the prison to go on lockdown. The reader is led to believe that Big Boo, the butch lesbian “prison trope” has taken it so that she might harm a romantic rival, but the punch line of the episode is that she is instead using it to masturbate. Like Chekov’s gun, it reappears in the final episode as a weapon in Piper’s confrontation with Pennsatuckey after all, but there’s no violent payoff to its appearance, as Pennsatuckey easily bats it away from Piper during their fight. The episode ends in violence, but this an exception rather than a rule, and Piper’s role as a stand-in for the reader is deeply problematized when she’s shown to be, in many ways, more dangerous than any of the other inmates. When the officious guard Healy turns his back on Piper’s cries for help as Pennsatuckey threatens her, we’re encouraged to fear for her safety—but the truth is it’s Piper herself, with all her access to racial and economic privilege, who is the real threat. Her violence aligns her with the unjust and violent system that has kept these other women down and accorded her so much unearned privilege. In contrast to the way we’re encouraged, at least on some level, to be charmed by Tony’s code of honor or goggle at Walt’s ingenuity, nothing about Piper’s violence is coded as admirable.
In Legitimating Television, Michael Newman and Elana Levine argues that the methods by which television has claimed cultural capital are rooted in patriarchal value judgments. Television is an effeminate medium: domestic, daily, rooted in the small concerns of everyday life. As the form gained cultural legitimacy, it did so by disassociating itself from these effeminate concerns. Show after show focused on flawed antiheroes finding different ways to deal with the implications of patriarchal power. At the same time, these shows made claims for “quality” by adopting formal strategies that distanced themselves from the history of the form, aligning themselves with the more masculine (and thus more legitimate) forms of films and novels. With its insistent reliance on the formal tropes of television, combined with a narrative emphasis on intimacy and melodrama, Orange is the New Black has embraced the effeminate form of television, and this embrace has enabled the show to break from the overweening masculinist concerns of most “Quality Television” and follow through on the feminist promise of the serial form, particularly in its focus on the ongoing costs of the prison-industrial complex and its commitment to representing queer women and women of color as complicated, realistic characters.