Friday, July 12, 2013

Orange is the New Black

I recently mentioned in my review of The Bridge the difference between making a point and stating one. Like Mr. Mackey saying, “Drugs are bad, mkay,” it’s hard to take anyone seriously who takes a complex issue and tells you, out right, how you should feel about it. Cinema is, in many ways, the art of manipulation, yet the moment we feel like we’re being manipulated, we stop engaging. So, after the dull civics lesson that was The Bridge, imagine my excitement watching the vibrant gut-punch that is Orange is the New Black.

The story is that of a privileged white girl who has a privileged white girl business selling soap and is engaged to her nice Jewish boyfriend and is going to prison for smuggling drug money into Belgium ten years ago (the statute of limitations for such an offense is twelve years). Once in prison, she has to deal with… you know, prison. But specifically, women’s prison. The well-trod images of men’s prison are twisted or just thrown out the window, but the themes still remain intact. Like any prison, male or female, the actual punishment is not confinement as much as it is dealing with the other people in prison. The tension is still there, the sense of dread. Yet, the shower sex appears to be consensual and the white supremacists want advice on which dress to wear to their wedding.

What makes Orange is the New Black so effective is that its message lies in its humor. It is so ridiculous that a woman would be going to prison ten years after smuggling a suitcase into Belgium. It’s so ridiculous that it’s funny. But it begs the question, (without ever actually asking the question) “Why are we putting this woman in prison?” Our hero, Piper (played by Taylor Schilling) is a model member of society. She’s starting a business, getting married. Yet, the state takes her out of her life and thrusts her into prison to, what, rehabilitate her?

Just looking into Piper Kerman’s (the author whose memoir this show is based on) life story, it’s clear that there is a flaw in the system. Changes should be made, in mandatory minimums, and in the idiotic war on drugs, but Orange is the New Black doesn’t need to make any suggestions. All it needs to do is tell an honest story, and we’ll get the point. So far, it has succeeded.

The Bridge

There is something vaguely autistic about the way The Bridge unfolds, which is fitting, considering the extremely autistic main character (Diane Kruger, who is excellent). I’ll explain. One half of the story is about a well intentioned yet jaded Mexican detective (played by Demian Bichir, whose capacity for subtlety is unparalleled). He is brought in on a very twisted murder case where the top half of a murdered Judge has been left attached to the bottom half of a dead Mexican girl on the Juarez-El Paso border. His every tired move fills the audience with the feeling that this is a man who’s been worn out by a life of disappointment, and this case may be his only chance to get it right. Yet he laughs and sighs with resignation, as if none of this really matters. Every single moment in his individual story line is steeped in implications and subtext.
Enter the El Paso detective (Diane Kruger), investigating her half of the murder, who tears through Demian’s perfected subtlety like she’s playing twenty questions. Every implication is made concrete by her incessant and very direct inquiries. And while it’s believable, even enjoyable, to see these two well-crafted characters tug against each other; it also flattens a show which could go so much deeper.
But it’s not just the Diane Kruger's autistic super cop who makes the show a little too on-the-nose for its own good. It’s a flaw that runs through every plot line. There’s a potential serial killer (played by Thomas M. Wright) who’s hunting down ladies in Juarez, taking off their shoes, then trapping them in the desert. His character is like a checklist of overused serial killer tropes. Then there’s some random Texan played by Annabeth Gish, who has found out after her husband’s death that he has a secret barn with a creepy secret basement crate. But nothing presented to us by these plots begs further inquiry. At one point there’s a line delivered by a fellow El Paso cop, “Have you seen what’s in her bottom drawer?” Like the creepy secret basement crate, you don’t have to work to figure out what it might be. Just wait around, and the show will tell you.
Then, there’s the final moment of the show, in which a voice on the phone spells out the show’s central political theme: thousands of Mexicans are killed in Juarez and no one cares, but when one white judge is killed everyone goes bananas. It’s a good point, but it’s a point the show should be making, not stating.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...