The trailer for Season 2 of Orange Is the New Black, out June 6, has been released, and as you'd expect, it’s designed to be exciting. Over the loud, pounding "Jungle" by Jamie N Commons + X Ambassadors, various characters issue threats, French kiss, strike hip/sassy poses and talk about how crazy prison is. A gunshot is fired, and Piper (Taylor Schilling) exclaims, "I am a lone wolf, and a vicious one. Don't make me rip your throat out." Drama, sex, violence, all in prison = awesome.
This isn't out of line with the approach of the first season of the show. But seeing the formula distilled down into a two minute clip underlines how crass it is—and how divorced from Piper Kerman's memoir, Orange Is the New Black, which is the ostensible inspiration for the series. There have been a number of articles comparing the two—June Thomas at Slate for example notes that the television show is superior because director Jenji Kohan didn't have to stick to the truth and can craft "entertaining stories." Or, to put it another way, the television show dumps in a lot of additional sex, violence, melodrama and quirkiness in an effort to make prison experience fun and enjoyable for binge-watchers everywhere.
In the book, when Kerman enters prison, the other women are eager to help her and make sure she's adjusting; in the TV show everyone is hostile, mean and quick to jump on any misstep—so much so that when Chapman makes an offhand remark about how the prison food sucks, Red (Pop in the book) cuts off her food supply. In the book, almost all the women are in the minimum-security facility because of drug crimes. That's not exciting enough for the TV series, though, so several women get their crimes bumped up to murder or manslaughter (of a child no less.) In the book, Kerman (who is bisexual) was surprised at how little lesbian activity there was in prison; in the TV show, everybody is sleeping with everybody else.
Most egregious is the treatment of Kerman's friend from the book, Pennsatucky, a crack addict who desperately wants to see her daughter again. In the book, Kerman says Pennsatucky, "was perceptive and sensitive but had great difficulty expressing herself in a way that was not off-putting to others." But again, not wacky enough for television, so the character is transformed into a violent Jesus-freak abortion-doctor murdering extra from Deliverance, the vicious, idiotic stereotype, proving once again that the only people liberals are allowed to hate in good conscience are poor white Southerners.
Critic Isaac Butler has chastised people like me for pulling what he calls the realism canard—the idea that fiction should be criticized when it isn't "realistic" or accurate. Butler makes a reasonable point; the television show isn't pretending to be true to Kerman's memoir; why should it be faulted for failing to do something it didn't set out to do in the first place? A television show needs drama, so Jenji Kohan and her team added drama. About the most exciting thing that happens in the book is that Kerman gets pissed at a fellow inmate on the track and pushes her, then immediately feels horrible and apologizes. Oh, and there's the time one of the camp personnel takes them outside the prison on a work detail and leaves them alone and they're all terrified that they'll get in trouble, and then nothing happens. This is not the stuff that makes for hours of riveting television drama.
The problem is that while the television show isn't real, incarceration is. We imprison too many people in this country for no good reason. A show purporting to be about the experiences of those people has an ethical duty not to exploit them by, for example, presenting them as violent and deviant just because violence and deviance sell. In this sense, the show undermines even some of its most positive aspects. The memoir is focused, as memoirs are, on the author; Piper's experience, as a middle-class white woman in prison, is front and center. Other characters are secondary. The TV show, on the other hand, has a more ensemble approach, with solid, substantial rolls for numerous black and Hispanic women, including Laverne Cox, one of the first trans women playing a trans character on television.
But it seems a little bitter when what is represented is consistently pushed towards deviance and sensationalism. Crazy-Eyes in the novel, for example, is a mildly aggressive character whose advances Kerman rejects firmly, and that's it. In the TV show, Crazy-Eyes (Uzo Aduba) appears to suffer from a serious mental illness. She's presented first as a dangerous stalker and then as a kind of adorable child-woman and magical font of zaniness and moral sweetness.
Piper is treated with a similarly heavy hand. In the memoir, Piper is largely sympathetic, and she bonds strongly with many of the other women. The force of the memoir is that she's a fish out of water—and that everyone in prison is a fish out of water. Nobody deserves to be there; prison petty and cruel for everyone. Or as Kerman says:
"No one who worked in ‘corrections’ appeared to give any thought to the purpose of our being there, any more than a warehouse clerk would consider the meaning of a can of tomatoes, or try to help those tomatoes understand what the hell they were going on the shelf… What is the point, what is the reason, to lock people away for years, when it seems to mean so very little, even to the jailers who hold the key? How can a prisoner understand their punishment to have been worthwhile to anyone, when it's dealt in a way so offhand and indifferent?"
On the TV show, Piper never articulates that kind of critique, in part because the TV show's goals are exactly opposite to those of the memoir. Rather than Piper being just like the women in prison because none of them deserve to be there, she’s just like the woman in prison because she too is deviant and violent. For the sake of drama, Piper is presented as selfish, needy, duplicitous, fickle, and eventually violent. As in Kohan's Weeds, the sexy corruption of white women is mined for both white guilt liberal cred and titillation. Supposedly, the show is revealing Piper's privileged cluelessness, but how thoughtful or trenchant is it to build a show around the idea that a person in prison is morally flawed and deserving of punishment? The TV show’s eagerness to present fun, excitingly deviant characters leaves little room for the kind of institutional critique Kerman presents in her book.
The TV show jettisons the memoir's political goals in favor of sex, violence, and zany fun times. What's really depressing is that OITNB's failures seem so inevitable. Narratives about deviance, violence and sex are interesting and engaging; they make for good ratings. Stories about how prisoners are just normal people, or how prison is a long, boring, monotonous slog, broken up by petty bureaucratic tyranny—that's not especially gripping or interesting. A memoir or a small scale documentary with a limited audience might be able to show incarceration without the gleeful voyeurism. But a prison tale that gets real traction in pop culture, whether it’s Willie Horton or OITNB, is going to be a prison tale that's exciting and set to an aggressive rock beat. Our love of punchy stories has filled our prisons, and we don't care to tell a story that will empty them again.
—Follow Noah Berlatsky on Twitter: @hoodedu