“Might not look like it, but there’s rules in this place. The most important of which is, the second you’re perceived as weak, you already are.”
Galina “Red” Reznikov, Orange is the New Black
“My mother is bipolar and my father is an alcoholic and an addict. He takes what he pleases and he offers nothing. No money, no support. I’ve done what I could to help raise my siblings. I wish I could’ve done more. I’m not asking for your pity or your admiration. I just want to be able to give these kids everything that they deserve because they’re great kids. And they deserve better.”
Fiona Gallagher, Shameless
So I have just completed the latest, and what I consider the best season of Jenji Kohan’s Netflix based binge phenomenon, Orange is the New Black, and ended up quite moved and profoundly affected by its unprecedented approach to social issues currently tearing at the fabric of our country. Privatized prisons, police brutality, the Black Lives Matter movement, class inequality, all humanized in an entertaining and thought provoking manner that makes these issues come alive rather than be distant abstractions. The concluding episodes, wherein a long-time character’s accidental death sent the narrative into a descending spiral of violence and chaos aptly reflected the state of our country in this increasingly ugly summer of 2016 e.v., with more and more questionable deaths at the hands of American police departments and, finally, a fatal retribution cycle in response filling our social media and news outlets with almost daily horrors.
So why do I feel so wrong about enjoying Orange is the New Black?
Admittedly, I am a privileged white male, borne of an increasingly battered middle class, but still never having to really encounter the day to day struggles so many Americans face due to their class, ethnicity, gender, or education. I have had rough times, yes, all of us have in the modern America, but the math is plain — I am not as likely to be profiled or brutalized by the state or our society due to its inherent biases. But my own prejudices, rooted in multiple recessions, a family tradition in liberalism, and a personal anti-authoritarian streak and sympathy for the universal outsider, has made me view shows like Orange is the New Black and it’s more earthy, exaggerated predecessor, Shameless, starring William H. Macy as Frank Gallagher, as, at the end of the day, exploitative. Maybe in a good way, maybe in a way that portrays the lives of poor, self-destructive whites in the South Side of Chicago, and female prisoners in New York state on Orange, in a way that has never been portrayed before on American television. Shameless is worse, don’t get me wrong, but ultimately these programs rely on our ability to have distance from their worlds. No matter how bad we may have it, we are not in prison with Piper, nor do we have a superhumanly dysfunctional father like Frank; so we can be amused, titillated, a socially conscious voyeur, to be sure, but a voyeur nonetheless.
Shameless is, at its heart, a classist black comedy, with its lead characters in the Gallagher family always either striving to free themselves from their South Side origins, sinking back into their apparently “destined” lives in the faux ghetto of the series, or engaging in lopsided interactions with various elites always astounded by the Gallagher’s gifts and/or endless talents of personal degradation. It is an enjoyable, transgressive farce, but it is no Good Times — this is not a socially conscious situation comedy, and it does not romanticize the characters or their dysfunction; in fact, it usually more or less sticks to the usual American narrative that the poor are pretty much to blame for their own lot, and only via character building personal strife and abandoning the losers in their lives can they amount to anything. In other words, it confirms the usual consumerist, classist status quo, as does Orange is the New Black. We can humanize the prisoners, get to know them, even love their individual quirks, and perhaps understand their crimes — but they are still criminals, all defined as the eternal other to the audience, all striving to evolve into successful individuals as the corporatist media needs.
Fuck it, I’m going back to the superhero genre — that’s where the real transgressive art is made nowadays.