I enjoyed Jenji Kohan’s Weeds, but I always felt kind of uneasy about it at the same time. It was set up as a standard fish-out-of-water comedy — suburban soccer mom enters the world of illegal drug trafficking — and it was funny in many predictable ways, as we watched Nancy Botwin (Mary Louise Parker) widen her wide eyes in recognition at each stage of her education as she gradually mastered her new milieu. Our pleasure came from watching her first learn the ropes and then learn to pull the strings, but there was always a sense of tension too, because whenever it seemed like Nancy had figured it all out, she’d stumble into some unforeseen dark corner of the trade and find herself confused and panicked.
My uneasiness came from the fact that those dark corners got darker and darker. It was one thing to watch Nancy to blunder and stammer through her first attempts to buy wholesale dope from a seasoned dealer. When, at some point, I found we’d got into the territory of rape, murder, and human trafficking, I felt disoriented — was I still supposed to be laughing?
Kohan’s new project Orange is the New Black, starring Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman, gives me similar fantods. Once again we have a nice white lady from money enter a demimonde where the kinds of savvy she possesses (how to start an artisanal soap company) are useless, and the kinds she needs (how to deal with an aggressive suitor or angry rival in the communal shower) seem unattainable. And also again, there’s a — for me — discomfiting confusion over the genre mindset I’m supposed to be in. When the inmates are arguing over who’s going to get to play the good parts in the Christmas pageant and who’s going to have to play the cattle in the manger scene, I feel safely in Barney Miller sitcom country. But when a fellow inmate orchestrates Piper’s being remanded to the solitary confinement unit, I’m not amused. Abuse of punitive solitary confinement is a horrific and persistent issue in the American penal system, and I don’t like seeing it represented in a comical context. The scenes of Piper in the security housing unit aren’t themselves comic, but the overall context of the show is. The effect of having documentary/dramatic type passages mixed in with clearly contrived/comic passages is that the comedy seems bizarre and the drama seems undermined.
The series’ sexual and racial politics are also difficult to manage. There’s a sweet feel-good love story between a couple vulnerable and nice kids, one of whom happens to be a white male corrections officer and the other of whom is a female Hispanic inmate. We seem to be asked to see this as a light and frothy and charming star-crossed lovers story, but when things get problematic in the relationship, the series seems to also require us to take our Foucault down from the shelf and start thinking about power. Again, I’m not sure what’s funny. It doesn’t seem funny.
OK, enough, I think I’ve made my basic point. Were I to go on, I would talk about how the show consistently portrays whiteness as a norm. White characters get to be complex in this show; characters of color are almost completely reduced to stereotypes. But OK, enough. Oh, we should also talk about how Lesbians are represented. And we should also talk about how thrilled the series is to show us naked female bodies—constantly, and almost from almost the first frame!—and why that might be. But right, enough.