We’re now just over halfway through the first season (since each season is 13 episodes, the halfway point would be halfway through the last episode, which is an awkward time for everyone). Now seems like a good time to stop and talk about what this show means and why it’s so popular.
There is, of course, the obvious: the jokes are funny, the characters are well-rounded and realistic, the writing is good. There’s also the fact that on all of our other shows, the episode ends when someone goes to jail. Game over, end of story. And instead, that’s where this story begins. Like the theme song says, “taking steps is easy/standing still is hard.” The prisoners can’t help learning and growing as human beings because that’s what we do and how our species survives, but the entire prison system is set up to discourage learning and growth. It’s designed to be the physical embodiment of stasis.
We’re reaching a nadir, as a society, of realizing that the concept of for-profit prisons is unconstitutional and gross, but we’re not sure what we want to do about it yet. The first thing we have to do is decide what prisons are supposed to be. Are they for rehabilitation? Or solely punishment? If they are for rehabilitation, it’s time to scrap the whole thing and start over, because we missed that mark from the get-go and are not even on the same planet anymore. If the imprisonment itself is meant as the punishment, how much punishment is just? By which, I don’t mean the length of prison sentences (although the show starts out with a guard declaring the length of sentences to be arbitrary), but is it a bad thing that Piper is able to get a cup of coffee and take a book to read in the yard and be generally blissed out? Prisoners get medical care, because they are wards of the state, but since we don’t have universal healthcare in this country that means they’re getting a service that the general population does not. Does that mean that it’s fair when their healthcare is less than they would receive outside?
This is a show that takes us into prisons and asks us to contemplate these things in a very palatable way – our POV character is an upper-middle class blonde woman, but the show doesn’t shy away from issues of privilege. Piper gets a lot handed to her because of how she looks and presents. It’s a challenging show. And it’s a smart show, about some abysmally stupid people. Piper can be so stupid you want to shake her, but the rumors the prisoners come up with and believe when they’re hunting a chicken are not solely the result of poor education either. (Rescue Me was also a very smart show about very dumb people.) But just because they’re not smart doesn’t mean they’re not loveable or worthwhile people. We’re all abysmally stupid sometimes. They have sometimes complicated stories. Very few of them are in prison because of actions they knowingly took and thought out beforehand. (Piper is one of the few. She knew it was illegal, but she did it to impress Alex. Alex is also one of the few. She was “addicted to money.”)
A big part of the reason why the prison system just gets more and more broken when everyone knows it’s broken is that we just don’t want to think about it. We want to put prisoners away and just forget about them. We really don’t want them to still be problems. But this show won’t let us forget. As long as we’re not binge-watching. Which is where I think the Netflix model might work against them. Netflix encourages binge-watching, but when I sat down and said “I’m going to watch OITNB this weekend!” I quickly found that it was way too intense for me. I had to space out the episodes a little, but there’s not an automatic way to do that. With all of my other shows, I program my DVR and it’s done for me. I have a “to do” list that updates itself, but it doesn’t include OITNB. And with this week signaling the start of the new TV season, the DVR is getting pretty crowded.
I like OITNB. I like that it’s challenging. I like that it’s critically acclaimed, so people are forced to go looking for it. I just wish it didn’t actually require looking to find.