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Netflix’s new women’s prison show Orange is the New Black is a current beneficiary of concentrated critical focus in a slow summer down turn for original scripted programming. The comedy drama about a yuppyish Brooklynite artisinal soap-maker whose youthful indiscretions land her in minimum security prison has drawn rave reviews. Having already binged on the all the first season episodes in the week they've been available, I can confirm that it’s mostly terrific and much weightier and more humane than show-runner Jenji Kohan’s previous Showtime hit, Weeds. As with Top of the Lake, female togetherness and the protective community among broken individuals emerges a major theme. Male characters are secondary, and not portrayed in a particularly flattering light. Shitty guards, nebbish boyfriends, ghosts of fuck ups past who pop up to shed light on how these women were led to their current troubles.
While the past few decades have seen a steady rise in shows centered around women, few have felt distinctly feminine in tone and view point. Late 90s/early 00s shows like Buffy, Veronica Mars, and Alias might be considered well-done, post-modern executions of old 1970s lady action show embarrassments like The Bionic Woman or Charlie’s Angels. More recent offerings like Homeland or FX’s new border saga The Bridge, substitute in a brilliant, troubled anti-heroine, but don’t mess too much with the way modern quality TV tells its stories. That two female creators in Campion and Kohan should be responsible for a deeper shift in perspective seems appropriate. Letting more voices and viewpoint on to the air can only help us avoid storytelling ruts. Orange has been rightly for praised for its big cast of women, all ages and colors and shapes. There are more meaty parts here for talented but non-physically idealized actresses than on five typical shows combined.
In a summer where nearly every movie released has failed the Blechdel Test, the show proves the allure of writing that’s not aimed at international audiences of 14 year old boys. For the record, I was wildly entertained by giant monsters fighting giant robots, but not everything ever made should feature the decimation of a major metropolitan area with only square jawed hunks standing in the way of further destruction. Fresh and funny as it is, Orange Is the New Black is near-perfect counter programming.
Of course, counting on TV drama as an oasis for mature storytelling ignores the real chance that prestige TV moves forward in the direction of blockbuster filmmaking instead of providing sprawling, empathetic character studies. The wild success of Games of Thrones’ epic storytelling might prompt a few more networks to go even bigger, even bloodier. As convincing special effects get ever cheaper, who’s to say that adolescent action and summer spectacle won’t begin to dominate small screens too? I feel like a convincing long-form superhero epic is right around the corner (As a sign of things to come, Joss Whedon’s upcoming Marvel show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has a pretty low chance of crashing and burning, I’d guess.) But full emersion into ratings-grabbing monsters and ’splosions fests might take a while. The meantime could be kind of great.