This recent season of OITNB practised an emerging, annoying trend: Tweet-Bait. By planting references unlikely to be used in a prison, they keep themselves trending on social media… but they sacrificed any consistent immersive realism.
Watching Season 3 of “Orange is the New Black” was like scrolling through my Facebook news ticker, or surfing Buzzfeed: interesting, but not the experience what I want from a TV show about characters who exist in a community sequestered from our world. The show’s creators are far too aware of what references are likely to appeal to their viewership, and less invested in how life in a women’s prison would severely limit these characters’ ability to participate in the smartphone generation’s culture.
Piper threw out a reference to Dov Charney’s track record of pursuing underage models as if she had an iPhone keeping her up-to-date with all the latest sharable content. Rather than digging in to the isolation from our world that these women experience, the writers frequently made the characters sound like puppet-versions of ourselves. Those of us not in prison know how there’s a new developing issue to talk about each day, but very few people cloistered away behind bars would be able to reference those issues with such fluency.
There’s a fishbowl mentality that emerges in confined social communities like prison, wherein the contemporary vernacular we take for granted encounters a bottleneck at the barred gate. Very little slips in, and in it’s place, a unique language of terms and references grows instead. They would have their own references, their own specific set of media, events, and jokes to trade. Why then, are they trading the ones that our own parents tend to miss? Their references and style of conversation are so laboriously designed to get a reaction out of their targeted audience, that instead of hearing the character’s voice, all I hear is a million Netflixers exclaiming “OMG they just referenced ____ on OITNB! That’s like what I talk about with my friends!”
This is what I’ve begun to call ‘tweetbait’. Tweetbait is when a show includes a line, shocking moment, or sequence designed to get the live-tweeters to hashtag the show into stratospheric trending status. It’s a quick and dirty success, the kind that lasts twenty-four hours if it’s lucky. What it means for those of us watching for character and story is that any believability is regularly punctured by the show’s uncharming self-awareness of its place in the culture. But ONLY in a very specific culture: early summer of 2015 in North America. Season 3 will not age well; it will not be nearly as watchable in a couple years, littered as it is with references to things that are enjoying a temporal fame at best.
No, OITNB is not manipulating us in a sinister propaganda campaign. But it’s annoying if you like your entertainment to not feel like one long YouTube ad, clumsily directed at a target demographic. I was very aware I was being marketed to, not to sell a product, but to sell me an implausible zeitgeist. Every time I immersed in the characters and the community, I was snapped back out of it by a line, reference, or behaviour that was obviously crammed in by an executive producer terrified of losing the show’s key audience.
But even a lot of the dialogue free of references is intermittently lazy with lines designed for a generation that tends to celebrate randomness over wit. I had to skip past the overlong banter between Doggit and the new guard about personified donuts. It reminded me too much of the oh-so charmingly kooky messages that men copy-paste to me and many other women on OkCupid. It’s a placeholder for wit, offers no character development, and is a waste of a scene. If the writers wanted to establish a playful mood between the two characters so that we, like Doggit, are lulled into a treacherous sense of safety with this abusive guard, then it could have been done with dialogue that offered exposition or character development, or at least didn’t so obviously resemble the ‘quirky’, ‘random’ conversations that Millennials are so frequently subjected to in our media.
Here’s what I did find redeeming about the season, and it’s a double-edged quality: it presented several very serious issues in an ongoing, meticulously developed way. We are presently dealing with many of these things, including:
a) what happens when prisons become privatized,
b) the horror of transphobic violence,
c) the irresponsibility and laziness with which anti-depressants are prescribed to people who ought to be given alternate or additional options, and
d) what happens when benign beliefs take on organized rules and become exclusionary religions.
OITNB took its time letting these subplots emerge, letting characters become involved in a way that enhanced both personal character development and illustrated practically why these are issues that need attention. However, I never fully immersed in the story-lines because it was still very clear, same as it would be in a workplace harassment training video, that these were capitol I “Issues”, and more specifically, Issues That Millennials Post About on Social Media. Yes, these issues were developed slowly over multiple episodes. But that doesn’t mean it was subtle.
I was very glad that attention would be drawn to these things, especially when all of them are currently having a pernicious effect on prisoners, the trans community, and anyone hurt by the current wave of injurious claimants who cite “religious freedom” as an excuse for ignoring human rights as commonly as they ignore the precepts of the religion itself. However, it still felt like scrolling through my Facebook feed, reading articles posted by friends and followees. And so, it may have been successful as an awareness campaign, but I can’t call it an artistic success.
Maybe the producers decided to sacrifice the immersive experience to use their popularity to make several important points about these issues. But when it comes to what a discerning viewer looks for in entertainment, it’s not enough to just make a point. As a writer, director, producer, you have to seduce your audience so they don’t realize a point is being made until it’s landed with a memorable emotional resonance. I’ve seen South Park make a point more subtly and powerfully in one 20-minute episode than OITNB did in an entire season. I never got swept up in it, and moreover, I felt angry that characters I’d come to love were being used as mouthpieces for a network head trying to inject more relatability.
I’ll barely remember much of the the season in a few months because it had too little heart and soul to stick with me. The scene I remember most clearly a couple weeks after watching it is the one in which Nicky lets Red believe that she started using again even when she didn’t. That was a case of an actor, writer, and director truly digging into the self-fulfilling belief that this character has about her own limits, and perhaps realizing that selling heroin to others was just as much of a relapse—arguably worse because it risked putting others through a struggle she should be able to empathize with. The guilt that she has is so overpowering that she doesn’t even defend herself, doesn’t even try to be remembered well by her adoptive mother. That was a memorable scene, but there were very few that resonated as truthfully to me as it or scenes from the first season before the show became so popular.
However, Piper continues to be one of the most frustrating characters I’ve ever encountered on television. Her early realization that she may be manipulative could have been so powerful— but ends up being pointless when she continues to manipulate herself and others throughout the season. Her lack of empathy for Alex’s justifiable fear of a drug king’s retribution is almost sociopathic. The only endearing moment she achieves early on in the season is when she asks Alex to be her girlfriend, and it too is quickly made meaningless when she later asks the shiny new white girl in prison to be her ‘partner’. She acts as if Alex is annoying and needy for being understandably confused by her arbitrary shifts in affection. Thankfully, Piper has faded into being just another member of the ensemble and the show is no longer asking me to see the world through her deluded, self-involved perspective.
The introduction of Ruby Rose’s Stella seemed promising—for about her first two lines of the show that perfectly framed and skewered Piper’s privileged, pretty-white-lady perspective. I hung in rapture from her flawless face, exhilarating tattoos, and blistering critique of a demographic she seemed to transcend through sheer archness. But the light that burns twice as bright…
Stella could have been a game-changer, but all she provided was insight into something we already know about Piper: she falls for smart, powerful, confident women who would make much more compelling leads than herself. Frankly, Stella’s caustic, intelligent beginning made it hard for me to believe she’d submit to Piper’s manipulation so easily. I found myself wishing that her and Alex, or her and Poussey would hook up and leave selfish Piper in the cold, wondering why no one trusts her anymore.
Alex has proven to be more intelligent than this season presented her as. Piper confessed to her that her ulterior motive in calling Alex’s probation officer and landing her back in prison was because she didn’t want to be alone. What should have repelled Alex the survivor, Alex the intelligent, confident drug mover, instead endeared her and got her to forgive this savage bit of sociopathic self-interest. And all I could think was “Are you not hearing what I’m hearing? I know you don’t hate yourself enough to get back into a relationship with this woman.” And yet contrary to all her development, Alex got sucked back in only to get quickly pushed back out in one of the weakest, most unsatisfying, love triangles I’ve ever seen. The dynamic was schizophrenic, rushed—when Piper rolled her eyes at the woman she’d just asked to be her girlfriend getting moderately upset at her cheating, I wondered if I had missed an episode or three. This was a season where I was frequently wondering if I’d missed episodes.
I thought new character Danny’s development was satisfying—going from being a yes-man grateful for his dad’s nepotism to throwing classic negotiation tactics out the window and inviting his dad to “enjoy nose-fucking your whiskey” was probably the most hilarious moment of the season for me. But it was a high point on an otherwise inconsistent heart monitor. I really don’t think it’ll be enough to revive my interest for the fourth season.
I won’t go so far as to say that I felt this season insulted my intelligence—however, it seems to lack confidence in it’s audience. Like we won’t stick around if they don’t throw out a reference to Monsanto once in a while. I was reminded of a girl I knew in Grade 11, who would awkwardly insert self-conscious jokes about pop culture into conversations she had with me and my friends. I always wanted to find a way to put her at ease, assure her that we would like her even if she wasn’t up of the stuff we talked about. I wish someone would tell the ‘Orange Is the New Black’ team that we’ll still like them even if all they do is accurately portray characters we’ve come to love. They don’t need to try so hard to impress us.