We are currently living through the final stages of the transition of artistic precedence from film to television. For the length of the twentieth century, film and television existed on opposite sides of the divide between Art and Entertainment. Film, the self-contained narrative form exhibited in movie houses, was an artistic medium, while television, which was beamed directly into everyone’s living room and was constantly being interrupted by advertisements, was entertainment. While the Coppolas and Kubricks of the world crafted lasting masterpieces, Johnny Carson and Bob Hope made programs which were deemed unworthy even of being recorded for posterity. The mediums, though they are created by nearly identical technological processes, were entirely separate in the minds of creators, critics, and the public.
The first crack in the Berlin Wall between film and television appeared in the 1990s on a channel called HBO. While programs such as NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street were breaking ground in the broadcast arena (which is still struggling to play catch up to the pay channels decades later), HBO was able to command the world’s attention with a little show called The Sopranos. Many aspects of The Sopranos separate it from everything that came before it, but ultimately what makes it different is that each episode looks and sounds like a movie. The acting and cinematography is top-notch, the writing and pacing are perfect, and, most importantly, it is uninterrupted by advertisements. As such, every episode feels like a miniature movie; each week when you sit down in front of your television, you’re expecting a small piece of art.
Nearly twenty years after The Sopranos premiered, the line between movies and television has been all but eradicated. It is now completely reasonable to compare seasons of television to movies when discussing one’s favorite filmic art from from a given year. Moreover, the economics of the movie industry have pushed an increasing number of talented individuals towards the comparative artistic freedom of modern-day television while the worst trends in Hollywood movies have been amplified. If shows like True Detective and House of Cards stand beside your average serial killer mystery or political thriller, then the Marvel Universe movies are best compared to a popular television show that is going into its sixth hit season. In fact, True Detective is the perfect example of this paradigm shift: in a year where Matthew McConaughey starred in multiple films, his best role was on television.
Netflix is the logical successor in the change begun by HBO. House of Cards and Orange is the New Black announced the company as a serious player in the prestige television game from the very beginning, as both shows garnered multiple Emmys and much critical acclaim in their first seasons. Last year’s Bojack Horseman was the first strong Netflix comedy show, which, in combination with the first season of action/superhero program Daredevil, gave the nascent “streaming media provider” a full-fledged lineup.
This year marked the release of both of Netflix’s flagship programs’ third seasons, and the offerings could not be more different from one another. The third season of House of Cards takes numerous steps backwards, both in terms of plot momentum and quality; instead of continuing the story of Frank Underwood’s meteoric rise through the highest ranks of government, the show slowed to a crawl to agonize over his heretofore-unseen marital issues, simultaneously torpedoing one of the show’s best relationships and misusing its strongest actress. On the other hand, Orange is the New Black rebounded from its slight misstep in season two, refocusing on Piper Chapman’s incarceration transformation and working in its new characters more organically.
In season three, Piper completes the journey that she started at the very end of season one. In that season, her climactic showdown with Pennsatucky showed that Piper was beginning to shed her constructed liberal view and embrace a more visceral, less privileged perspective. In season three, Piper begins by admitting that she is surrounded by prisoners and ends by embracing that fact. Like Merseult in The Stranger, she goes from being a passive observer of her own circumstances to an active participant, making the most of her time behind bars via an original, perverted criminal enterprise. Similarly, she moves from her passive acceptance of Alex as her romantic partner to actively pursuing another woman. Her newfound romance with a criminal played by striking Australian model Ruby Rose serves to join the two storylines and push Piper into being the new version of herself. The final scene between the pair, in which Piper plants evidence in her girlfriend’s cell in order to frame her, serves as the culmination of her journey: she is no longer passive, is no longer a victim, and has moved on to being the victimizer. I look forward to seeing where Kohan et al take the character in the next season.
The show’s third season continues the process of humanizing Litchfield’s various inmates through flashbacks. This year’s origin stories mixed humor and drama nicely, especially with Leanne, Norma, and Pennsatucky’s blackly comedic upbringings. Importantly, we are shown Alex Vause’s history with the ominously-named Kubra, which leads to one of the most interesting side-plots in the season. The weakest storyline is the continuing drama with Dayanara and the larger Diaz clan; with Pornstache gone and Bennett following soon after, the writers add a new wrinkle in the form of a surrogate mother for Daya to agonize over. It’s the same dynamic we’ve seen before, with Daya falling victim to Aleida’s schemes, and it’s pretty tired. The best thing to happen to the Diaz family is the child finally being born, as it will hopefully allow the show to advance their plot and characters away from the clichéd codependent mother/daughter territory on which it has existed thus far. However, since baby’s are rarely handled well on television shows, I have my doubts going forward.
This is also a season of strange bedfellows. The lines between the racial groups are repeatedly broken down, with Red moving back to the Latina-run kitchen and the black girls rescuing Soso from a fate worse than The SHU. There is a clash between the classes when Burset agrees to allow Mendoza’s son to ride with her own son to the prison that plays with a more racialized aspect of concepts that were previously explored via Piper and Soso. Caputo continues sleeping with Fig in a relationship that is among the healthiest of the season despite the barbs exchanged constantly between the couple: not only does Fig help save the prison from being shut down, she listens to Caputo’s problems and gives him advice when no one else will. The best relationship to come out of these crossovers is the one between Boo and Pennsatucky, which culminates in a botched attempt at taking revenge on an abusive guard. The interplay between Boo’s mindless aggression and Pennsatucky’s overwhelming passivity is a joy to watch.
The underlying political commentary on the prison-industrial system comes to the fore during this season, though it is (wisely) presented through the eyes of the characters in a way that keeps it from seeming preachy. The guards have their hours cut and decide to form a union while Caputo deals with a childish new boss who clothes his orders in corporate doublespeak. The couple of scenes that take place in the boardroom are as bitingly cynical as the network meetings from The Larry Sanders Show and stand out as singular departures from the otherwise small world of Litchfield and the interior lives of its inmates. Otherwise, we see the gradual squeezing of money through the eyes of the prisoners, which leads to the excellent subplot regarding the Kosher meals.
After three seasons, Orange is the New Black is leading the charge of Netflix’s original programming. It is a bona fide prestige television show, with all the accolades and baggage associated with the title. It is the logical continuation of the revolution that The Sopranos started in 1999, in many ways finalizing the maturation of television as an art form by removing from the medium all of the trappings that weighed it down during its nascency. Gone are the commercial interruptions and the weekly wait for the next episode; instead we get a thirteen hour long filmic story, helpfully divided into bitesize chapters. If the film and television of the twentieth century were an egg and a sperm, web-based television series of the 21st century are the child that takes the best aspects of each of its parents and forges its own identity. Orange is the New Black is one of that child’s baby steps.