Last week, Sara Giustini and I posted our conversation about Master of None then I mentioned on social media that I was FINALLY watching the new season of Orange is the New Black.
Two things came out of that comment:
First, Sara’s reply “I’ll be curious to hear what you think about the new season…” motivated me to delay items on my “To Do List” and binge my way through Season 5 of Orange is the New Black.
Second, media scholar and generally wonderful person Sharon Marie Ross chimed in saying she wanted to know what I thought about the new season. With that comment, I discovered that Sharon was actually one of Sara’s professors!
Small world and all that, but let’s get down some serious talk about the most popular series on Netflix with Sara and Sharon Marie.
Mary: While some of the earlier seasons were more dramatic than Season 4, it was my favorite leading up to 5 because of the focus on the perils of privatizing prisons. I think that’s an important idea that becomes even more explicit (didactic?) this season.
Sara: I think you hit the nail on the head with didactic. While I thought season five had some great moments (please someone talk about the Dreamgirls sequence!), the heavy-handed way in which the show delivered an important message about privatization of prisons seemed to undermine the intelligence and sophistication of their audience.
Sharon: OK–I loved (even though I found odd) the Dreamgirls episode and then the Law and Order/Saved By the Bell scenarios. It was oddly not the usual trope you’d find in a show, but instead I think showed the ways in which entertainment media craft our expectations of the ways in which the world operates. The white-ifying of Dreamgirls especially struck me–it was a genuine and formative moment for Watson that worked powerfully for me as a White viewer. I think the main thing I need to ponder with this season is its striking use of media as a concept. The thread was laid out with Judy King last season of course, but this season it was as if the topic WAS media/entertainment. Joining with this (and at times overshadowed by this) was the issue of private for-profit prisons. That was a fascinating mix that means I’ll likely have to rewatch seasons 4 and 5 again more carefully. There’s a “jump the shark” gal in me always, and a part of me wondered if this season was a drug-induced perception of Red or even multiple characters…bizarro-land version of Litchfield. I am left pondering that humdinger of an ending, which was both beautiful and shocking–and definitely surreal!
Sara: That’s an interesting point! I don’t think I noticed the media motif, but now I am thinking about Litchfield Idol and the news coverage of the riot. There were definitely times while watching this season that I felt the show was a caricature of itself. I thought that the focus on the coffee snorting or speed taking antics undercut some of the more important themes of the show– in particular, the dehumanization of prisoners. I think the inmate list of demands in the “Pissters” episode is a great metaphor for the season–too many priorities (and the inability to execute any completely!).
Mary: I enjoyed the media elements and (as noted) the commentary both this season and last season about the dangers of privatizing public services (going from bad with certain prison issues to much, much worse with little oversight), and the way that was set up last season to go into this one was excellent in my view. I, too, thought the Dreamgirls sequence was spot on and oh-so-very painful to watch. Overall, I thought occasionally about Oliver Stone’s adaptation of Quentin Tarantino’s script into the film Natural Born Killers. This might surprise you both, but I’ve always considered that an underrated film because of the way it critiques media exploitation of the true crime story AND consumers of the media violence as drivers of the coverage ALMOST as much as the perpetrators of the violence. In this way (though it is softer and gentler aesthetically and, even, thematically), Season 5 makes all of us complicit in what happens at Litchfield and what happens in the larger culture to land inmates there because of the things many of us choose not to attend to, including that we are able to make that kind of choice because of our multiple vectors of privilege. I’d like to hear what both of you think about another type of choice, the choice to frame an entire season around one event that lasts just a few days. I think it’s a risky move that–for the most part–works and mixes it up enough to keep the series from flagging by seeming too much like more of the same.
Sharon: I think the time frame worked tremendously well, actually. The hyper-intensity of the episodes would have been problematic if not occurring within an equally intense time frame, and I liked that it “honored” Poussey’s death and life by not jumping to a point where it wasn’t still raw for everyone. I think it also captured the emotional whirlwinds of protesting in the moment…Not sure I’m explaining this well, but looking over all the protests of the past year or so in our country, one of the central themes has been “how to do an effective protest.” How do you capture and communicate the spontaneity of anger and outrage while also crafting a message that will be attended to with some degree of respect? In a way, the absurdities of this season “felt” like much of the last year or so, right up to us discussing this shortly after the Philando Castile shooting trial. Sort of puts the notion of “absurdity” in stark relief…
Sara: I enjoyed the condensed timeline, and I thought it served the story well. For me, I kept questioning the necessity of the flashbacks. The device served the other seasons so well, but with the exception of the amazing Dreamgirls sequence, I often felt these scenes slowed the narrative. Overall, I really appreciate what Orange is the New Black is trying to accomplish thematically and creatively, but I think it falls short of some of its past seasons in execution. That being said, the finale was amazing!
Mary: We haven’t talked here about something all of us tacitly accept: the ability of popular culture to drive cultural change. One of my former students, Corey Washburn, specifically chose to write about this series in the chapter she contributed to the volume Critical Media Studies: Student Essays on Contemporary Sitcoms because she thinks the series is a tool in combatting homophobia, and–this this is the most touching aspect of her choice to me–she thought writing about this series through the lens of sexuality would make her a better ally. Gosh, I’m starting to wonder what next season will bring for Orange is the New Black, but there are so many other series I need to watch before then!
Sharon: OK…so now I’m quasi-binging Dear White People and Glow…and then on to American Gods! Too much fascinating TV….:D
Sara: I want to watch American Gods! Almost finished with Glow and The Handmaid’s Tale. And shouldn’t the sequel to Top of the Lake be coming soon….?
Mary: I think I need to get Hulu to watch The Handmaid’s Tale! I CAN’T KEEP UP! Who knew Peak TV would start to feel like a burden? Thanks, Sara and Sharon! This has been fun…and enlightening!
Sharon: For me too!!!! MARY–PICK THE NEXT SHOW! 😀 (and so very cool to be chatting with one of my face former students–Sara!!!)
Sara: I love chatting with both of you! Sharon–I remember the lecture you gave about Sex in the City and the shopping metaphor so clearly! It was like- “Really!?! Other people are fascinated with TV and popular culture! Yay!!!!”
Mary: Ha! I can’t resist. Sara, you may not know this, but Sharon contributed a wonderful chapter on Sex and the City to The Sitcom Reader, a volume Laura R. Linder and I co-edited. I put together interviews with chapter authors for my online class, and all of them are available (with transcripts!) online. I love hearing Sharon talk about Sex and the City, too! But, back to the matter at hand. Let’s figure out another show to talk about! I’m open to suggestions. One of my students tells me I need to be watching Tangerine. I’ve been meaning to watch 13 Reasons Why. Let’s pick something!