Welcome to Apples and Oranges! This is a new feature I’m trying out where I compare incomparable things only because of a thin thread connecting them.
[Some spoilers, but I haven’t finished the 3rd OITNB season yet so please avoid spoilers in the comments!]
I love Orange is the New Black. Unflinching without being obnoxious, it was brave and awesome and it took a huge risk and totally paid off. It brought Laverne Cox onto the world stage, and started a lot of intelligent conversations about race and how people of color are portrayed in the media. It was AWESOME. And to compare apples and oranges, I am comparing it to HBO’s brilliant prison show OZ.
OZ was literally what gave HBO its middle name of “god damn this is some fine television right here.” It began airing in 1997 – almost twenty years ago! – and depicted the lives of inmates and staff at the fictional Oswald State Correctional Facility. It contains many alumni of other HBO shows, particularly The Wire. OITNB is similiar in a lot of ways, although WAY less brutal.
I admit it’s unfair to compare the shows because OITNB takes place in a prison, and OZ takes place in a max facility. Basically, it’s the prison where you go if you don’t behave in regular prison and they get tired of your shit. Please also note that I am not going to try and make some grand point about the difference between men’s and women’s prisons, because that would be asinine; these are fictional products inspired by reality, but do not function as examples of such.
In OITNB, people get their feelings hurt and sometimes get beaten up, or even beaten to death.
In OZ, they got their faces caved in or fed ground glass until they bleed out.
So, you know, different playing field, different rules.
Oz’s legacy is so ubiquitous its title sequence was lampooned on the Venture Bros, which is a major benchmark of pop culture– sort of like being parodied by Weird Al.
AND when Homer went to jail on the Simpsons, his little hat was a nod to Simon Adebisi’s own ever-present accessory. THAT Is a whole other level of pop-culture achievement!
And the original in all it’s glory:
That photo accurately depicts the real Simon Adebisi; he’s a handsome, highly intelligent man played to the hilt by the magnificent Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje, but my GOSH was Adebisi a great villain. On the show, almost every character, no matter how brutal, was given some kind of humanizing moment that allowed another facet of their personality to shine through. My memories of the show are hazy but I don’t recall Adebisi ever having that moment (although dropping his pants and fiddling with his bits during his physical was hilarious, and apparently the actor’s improvisation).
One thing that OZ did so much better than OITNB was letting the viewer pick their narrative; for white, middle-class viewers like me, the story of Tobias Beecher heading to prison after drunken vehicular manslaughter was our window to this world. But the beauty of the show was how it drew us into those other windows as they opened wider and wider, providing other characters – Alvarez, Augustus, Poet, Kareem Said, Wangler, a forum for their stories.
I will totally admit that the premise of the first season of OITNB, of a ‘good girl’ going to prison, was what drew me in. That and curiosity about what women’s prison might be like, especially since I’m too lazy to go read about it myself. And naturally at the base of such curiosity is the self-absorbed First Wonder of the First World, Could I make it on the inside? Piper’s story was the main narrative, and that got me watching. But you know what? By about midway through the second season I was absolutely done caring about Piper because the characters around her were so much more compelling and had eclipsed her. At this point, everyone else in the prison is more interesting to watch.
So when season 3 began with her reunion with Alex and the selfish thing she did to achieve that, I sort of stopped giving a shit. Now obviously I have a lot more of this season to get through and since it’s OITNB, shit will go down and things will happen, but I’ll be honest, every time Piper is onscreen my mind starts wandering. She doesn’t seem to be growing as a character and her emotional gurning is so infuriating. When Red tells her to get in touch with her inner Russian and she immediately puts that into practice by pretending to ignore Alex and then having hatesex with her, I threw my hands up into the air because I just didn’t care. And then Alex forgave her! I get that they’re stuck inside and have to make the best of it; I suppose the one character’s (can’t find her name, sorry!) monologue about how prison is a band-aid and nobody who’re friends on the inside can sustain their relationships outside comes into play here, or will later in the season.
I wouldn’t mind if the story wandered away from Piper and her boring entitled bullshit to focus on more worthy characters. I know that Taylor Schilling is doing her best with her performance, and the show has certainly pulled back from her narrative, but I wouldn’t mind if it left her even farther afield. It still feels like she’s the sun and all the other characters orbit around her, but she’s very slowly collapsing in on herself and in danger of becoming a black hole.
Oz’s strength lay in the showrunners following ALL the stories, not just one. It feels like when Piper finishes her sentence, OITNB will end, and that’s just not what the show is anymore. It’s done too much for the LBGT community (Laverne Cox was on TIME MAGAZINE!) and for actresses of color to go out that way.
Have you watched either show? What are your thoughts?