Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Drama Is The New Comedy

TV critics (how long has that profession been around?) say we've been living in a golden age of drama since The Sopranos debuted 15 years ago.  But one thing about this drama--a lot of it is funny.  David Chase said his show was as much The Honeymooners as The Godfather.  In its first season or so, I would have characterized Breaking Bad as a dark comedy. And Mad Men can be hilarious.

But now we're getting all the way and nominating some hourlong shows that play like dramas in the comedy categories. The most obvious example is a show I've just caught up on, Orange Is The New Black.  On Netflix, it's had two seasons of 13 episodes and has been picked up for at least one more.  I would describe it as a drama with a humorous bent, but according to the Emmy Awards--and therefore it's producers, I guess--it's a comedy, competing with The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family for statuettes (and generally losing).

I approached it with trepidation.  I'd watched an awful lot of episodes of creator Jenji Kohan's last show, Weeds, but never really liked it. (So why watch it?  Guess I pay so much for premium cable I feel obligated--that would also explain all the episodes of Boardwalk Empire, Nurse Jackie and Californication I've logged.) That show's characters ranged from obnoxious to hateful.  The plot was ridiculous, even for a comedy. The writing was more empty cleverness than true wit.  And too often the action would stop dead so some character could mouth Jenji Kohan's political beliefs.

I'm happy to report that Orange Is The New Black is a much better show. It has flaws, but overall it's one of the more intriguing and entertaining things out there.  Set in a women's prison, it follows Piper Chapman, a blonde WASPy type, who's engaged to be married when a former lesbian lover drops a dime on her.  They'd been partners in crime--literally--drug-running and money laundering.  Rather than risk fighting a felony charge, Piper surrenders to the authorities, and her term is fifteen months.  This story is based on the book of the same name by Piper Kerman, a WASPy blonde who spent a year inside.

Chapman, played by Taylor Schilling, is the sort of character you'd expect to be the lead in a sitcom, until she's thrown in jail, anyway.  And that's the point.  Kohan wants someone TV viewers can relate to, so she can ease us into a wide-ranging cast of prisoners and prison officials--most of whom I expect were created by Kohan and her staff, and aren't in the book.  A huge cast it is--there are about forty regular and recurring characters, but most are distinct enough that after a few episodes you can tell them apart.  The show features plenty of familiar faces, from TV (Laura Prepon of That '70s Show and Kate Mulgrew of Star Trek) and movies (Jason Biggs and Natasha Lyonne of American Pie), but even more relatively new faces.

What Piper discovers, once she's in stir, is that the old rules of life no longer apply.  The system dehumanizes you as all the perks of personal autonomy that you took for granted no longer apply.  You're told what to do, where to be, when to eat, when to shower, etc.  And if you don't comply, you can be sent to solitary.  Piper soon discovers she's got to play the game to make it.  The first thing she learns is people revert to basic tribalism.  The whites stay with the whites, the blacks with the blacks, the Latinas with the Latinas.

She's also got the problem of how to keep the relationship with her fiancé going while she serves her sentence. Meanwhile, she discovers she's locked up with the old girlfriend who named her.

Everyone in prison has something going--something to give them whatever sense of hope or pride they can manage.  Either it's from group identity or some scam they pull or barter they manage.  And whatever property or perks they're allowed to have they fight fiercely to hold onto.  In the men's prison genre, there's usually plenty of violence. Women aren't quite so violent, but there's still some fighting here.  And, also like the men's genre, plenty of sex--sometimes with guards, usually with each other.

In addition, each episode--not unlike Lost, still the most influential show of our time--gives us a glimpse into the past, showing what some inmate's life was like outside, and often what led them to the crime that put them in prison.

Taylor Schilling is excellent at the center of show.  She's lovely, of course, but she's believable as a semi-innocent thrown into the lion's den. (The show has to deglamorize her a bit, but you can still see she's beautiful.) Most of the other actors do a good job, and with numerous plots spinning away from Piper's story (there's even an episode in the second season that manages without her), they all hold interest.

I don't know if I'd call the show a comedy.  It occasionally makes me laugh, but not like a good sitcom. Still, it's a hybrid, and I suppose it can just as easily be called a comedy as a drama.

Each of the first two seasons take place over three or four months. At that rate, the show can last another two or three seasons before Piper's term is over.  That should be enough.  I'd hate to see them lengthen her sentence just so the show can run longer.

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