Monday, June 16, 2014

Orange Is the New Black Review: In Opposition to Binge-Watching

Yael Stone and Uzo Aduba share a moment in "Orange Is the New Black"

Editor’s Note: This piece contains spoilers for the first six episodes of the second season of Orange Is the New Black.  Proceed with caution.

Since the second season of Orange Is the New Black was released last Friday, I’ve been slowly making my way through.  And by “slowly,” I mean that I’ve that I’ve seen six episodes in nine days as opposed to streaming the whole thing last weekend like the rest of its viewers seem to have done.  I get that impulse.  Orange is an entertaining show.  It’s structured in a way to always leave us wanting more.  I know because I watched the first season that way, consuming all 13 episodes over the course of about a week.  Upon finishing this season’s fourth episode, “A Whole Other Hole,” I came to the realization that not only do I not enjoy binge-watching Orange Is the New Black, it actually becomes a lesser show when I do.

The turning point came after the big reveal in “A Whole Other Hole,” in which we discover that Morello’s relationship with her fiancée was fabricated entirely.  He’s a man with whom she went on one date, before stalking him, threatening his new girlfriend, and planting a bomb under her car.  It’s a remarkable twist that plays not only with her character, but with our perception of her, of the other characters, and of how Orange tells stories in general.

Part of what makes the twist so great is how the writers set Morello’s character up, from the very first episode, not just in terms of plot, but thematically as well.  The way Morello is introduced to the audience in the pilot, we know immediately what to expect from her.  We first meet her reading a bridal magazine and talking about her wedding plans.  The purpose is obvious: the audience is to recognize Morello as a parallel to Piper.  Both women are engaged and think of prison as simply a stopping point on their way back to a normal life.  While the show never really followed up on that initial assumption, the idea was still in viewers’ heads: This is a (relatively) normal person who just wants to do her time and get out.

Morello’s flashbacks in the episode are also used to effectively hide the truth.  The story plays out much like Sophia’s, in that we think we know her crime (credit card fraud) from the beginning, so the question will not be what she does to land in prison, but how her crime affects her loved ones, like her fiancée.  We even get the nice meet-cute with him making a joke about her potential criminal deeds.

But when everything unravels, it does so quickly in that devastating courtroom scene.  It’s not even the details of her harassment that are the worst part but the vapid smile and eyes stuck somewhere between sad and confused that betray the fact that she has no idea what’s happening there.  To her, it’s all a misunderstanding to be cleared up quickly.  She is so lost in her delusion that she can’t even fathom the idea that anything about her relationship is amiss. 

The most frustrating aspect is that Morello is a woman who is clearly not being served by the prison system.  In fact, prison is only deepening her delusion.  Because her mental illness is focused on something outside the gates, she’s actually able to pass for normal unlike Suzanne, whose issues are manifest for everybody to see.  It’s unclear how much the other prisoners buy into her story, especially given that her fiancee has never visited, but at the very least they don’t challenge her, allowing her to avoid the issue, to the extent that she’s willing to go to his home and play house, risking her future freedom in the process.

So why have “A Whole Other Hole,” in particular and Orange Is the New Black, in general, made me opposed to binge-viewing?  Because this episode crushed me.  It hit me hard in a way that I hadn’t expected.  I enjoy Orange a great deal.  It’s one of my favorite shows on television right now.  But it’s not a show I connect to emotionally all that much because, the truth is, I struggle to identify with the characters.  I’m a middle-class white dude who’s never done anything much worse than blowing off work to go to a concert. 

I’ve never been in these women’s shoes, whether inside prison or outside.  But Morello’s story was different.  There’s just something inherently terrifying about losing yourself so deeply.  Who are we if not the culmination of our memories and experiences?  What happens when those memories lie to us?  Who are we then?  And so this episode bothered me.  I had to sit with it and its meaning for two days until I could get to the next and, as I thought about “A Whole Other Hole,” as it burrowed its way into my mind, I grew to love it more.  I embraced its message of hopelessness and, most importantly, I yearned to see what happened next.  I wanted to see where the story goes.  And the truth is, I don’t if I would have felt the same way if I had immediately jumped into episode five. 

Don’t get me wrong, “Low Self Esteem City” was a fine episode.  But Morello’s story is largely dropped for a duel between Gloria and Vee and the sexual escapades of Nichols and Boo.  The sixth episode manages a beautiful moment between Morello and Suzanne that lets the two share in their illnesses and find some manner of connection.  It’s a fantastic scene made all the stronger by the fact that I had to wait for it.  I had to earn it.  And I had to spend three days dissecting what had come before.  I can honestly say I would not have gotten as much out of those episodes had watched them all in a row.

I want to be clear that I’m not saying nobody should binge-watch any shows.  There are many series that make for a great binge-viewing experience.  I can crank through five or six episodes of 30 Rock without blinking an eye.  A show like Review might even benefit from binge viewing because it makes it easier to keep track of the loose continuity.  I don’t even mind binging on procedurals, since the plots are generally the most important aspects of those types of shows. 

If all you want out of show is plot and humor, then by all means, binge away.  But what makes television unique as a story-telling medium is how important the characters are.  We fall in love with shows not necessarily because of their intricate plots but because we want to spend time with these characters week after week.  We grow up with them.  We watch them fall in love, and get married, and have children.  We watch them break up. We watch them die.  Our continued connections with characters are what make television special.  I lose those connections when I binge-watch and I imagine many others do as well.

I’m never one to tell somebody that they’re “watching television wrong.”  But we’ve become a viewing culture so intent on completion and being a part of the cultural conversation that when we’re presented with an excellent, addictive series like Orange Is the New Black, we’re tempted to watch as much as we can as fast as we can.  But that method might not give the best viewing experience.  The next time you’re tempted to crank out 13 episodes in two days of Orange, or Breaking Bad, or Game of Thrones, give it a second thought.  Let the episodes sit with you for a bit.  The great ones are worth it.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and an amateur television critic.  You can reach him at TyTalksTV AT gmail DOT com or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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