I just finished the first season of Orange Is the New Black.
I know, right? “Get with the times, man! That show was so last month!” Hey, despite the fact that I write a column about television, I’m a busy guy. Binge watching just doesn’t fit in my schedule.
Anyway, it’s pretty good. Maybe not worth the rapturous response some have given it, which I think stems from excitement over the emerging Netflix model, but still, it’s perfectly engaging. Yeah, I never really connected with the protagonist, a suburban white woman named Piper (based on a real suburban white woman named Piper), doing time in prison for aiding in a drug smuggling operation, until maybe the very last episode. And don’t even get me started on Jason Biggs. And the prison authorities are one-dimensional. And there are moments of cringing sentimentality, and a bit of an off-putting “naive blonde girl learns harsh life lessons from colorful cast of minorities” motif. But the supporting characters — the stern Russian cook, the older inmate with the cloudy back story and Natasha Lyonne’s recovering rich-kid junkie, in particular — are well-drawn, and the flashbacks framing their pre-prison lives provide an interesting narrative device. I’m in for Season 2.
As I watched the initial 13 episodes, my mind kept wandering back to another prison drama, one that emerged at the dawn of, and perhaps pioneered, the new millennium TV renaissance: HBO’s Oz. In tone, the two shows couldn’t be more different. Orange Is the New Black is damn near a comedy; Oz prided itself on bringing new levels of violent intensity to cable television. And of course, there’s the gender divide. Regardless, both series take place primarily behind the walls of the prison-industrial complex, and as Oz was the first TV drama I can remember being completely obsessed with, I couldn’t help but compare the two. And as I write this, part of me wants to go back and revisit the show. But another, louder part of me says that’s a terrible idea.
I know this because I actually did go back and re-watch the pilot episode a few years ago, with plans to keep going. Things like Oz don’t age well. The “grittiness” is overexaggerated. The characters are cartoonish. I also recall the show going completely off the rails after a few seasons (much as Dexter did) and I ended up abandoning it. It blasted a path to a more complex, more cinematic brand of television, but it took The Sopranos and The Wire to smooth down the rougher edges and show enough constraint not to go overboard with those newfound freedoms (among a lot of other things).
And so, when I watched that first episode of Oz, intending to show my younger friend an awesome show from my youth, I was a bit embarrassed by how bad it was. And it made me realize why the Netflix binge-watching model seems like the vanguard of a whole new way to consume culture: The more quickly we can absorb the present, the less past there is to be disappointed by. Will Orange Is the New Black hold up a decade from now? With the way things are now, it won’t have to.
I Need Media is a biweekly media column by Matthew Singer. Follow him on Twitter@mpsinger.