Let’s assume you can suspend disbelief long enough to accept Jenji Kohan’s portrayal of prison as summer camp in “Orange Is The New Black,” the Netflix original series that most television critics have been slobbering over since all 13 episodes in the first season were released on July 11. There remains a slew of problems much like the ones that plagued Kohan’s “Weeds” and made the last few seasons nearly unwatchable.
There’s Kohan’s tendency to write Sorkin-like dialogue that seems a little too perfect, as if what the characters say is what she would hope she would say in the exact same situation (in episode six, two African-American women expertly dice white stereotypes, pulling out jokes that would be a stretch in the (presumably) white, upper middle class suburb that Kohan lives in than the urban ghetto the two characters come from. There’s Kohan’s tendency to play out whatever unresolved mommy issues she has through her lead character.
And casting seems tough for these Netflix originals. Once you get a name like Kohan or Spacey attached to it, your budget is pretty much shot. For this series, Kohan has cast “American Pie” alums (and former “Where are they now?” candidates) Natasha Lyonne and Jason Biggs. Biggs essentially plays the grown-up version of the hopelessly under-sexed and neurotic Jim he portrayed in that series. And Laura Prepon, best known as Donna from “That Seventies Show,” is cast in a key role despite displaying no growth as an actor since that teen sitcom was canceled in 2006.
But the worst offense of “Orange Is The New Black” is Kohan’s portrayal of men. Much as she did in “Weeds,” Kohan portrays men as bumbling fools (think Councilman Doug in weeds) or as sadistic perverts (George “Pornstache” Mendez in OITNB).
When Kohan wants us to like a male character, she writes them as overly sympathetic yet tragically flawed creatures. We loved Andy is “Weeds,” despite his inability to get his shit together or over his crush on Nancy Botwin. We’re allowed to sort of like Sam Healey, the head of correction officers played by Michael J. Harney, forgiving him for his ongoing lesbian witch hunt in much the same way we’d forgive an elderly grandparent who cracks unenlightened (i.e. racist) jokes.
In OITNB, the only truly likable male character is John Bennett (Matt McGory) whose character flaws include a relationship with an inmate and, when that doesn’t do enough to make him weak, Kohan throws a mid-season reveal of his below-knee amputation which he somehow managed to hide through six episodes.
But no character is more annoying and more an embodiment of all of pop culture’s awful male stereotypes than Larry Bloom, as played by Biggs. Bloom is the befuddled, whoa-is-me fiancee to lead character Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling). Bloom has to constantly be reminded that being in prison is much tougher than being engaged to someone who is in prison, and for those viewers hoping for a full reprieve of his “American Pie” role, there is a cringe-inducing scene of Biggs masturbating. Biggs sucks at his job (he’s a freelance journalist), and his personality is crushed by his overbearing and stereotypically-Jewish parents (who don’t, surprise, surprise, like the non-Jewish Piper).
He’s jealous when he finds out Piper’s former lover is in the same prison as her, yet lies to Piper when he can tell her that she was indeed the one who implicated Piper and got her the 15-month stretch for a loosely-described drug running crime more than a decade earlier. The best episodes of OITNB are the ones where Bloom is noticeably absent. There is nothing else in the series that compares to the ability of Biggs to suck the life out of a scene when he shows up in the prison visiting room or we flash to the Manhattan apartment that is remarkably opulent considering that the couple, once Piper is sent to jail, has nothing that resembles a steady income.
And yet, despite all of the above, I found myself hooked, bingeing an episode or two at a time to make it through the first season (and I’m willing to watch a second season). Maybe it’s an exercise that kept me watching “Weeds” long after Nancy Botwin’s narcism went from being a quirky character point to being an all-encompassing show structure. maybe I’m just waiting for something really awful to happen to the despicable characters Kohan creates. I want Larry Bloom to get what he deserves, and I can;t help but sense that smug Piper Chapman will go from being delightfully obtuse to being as evil as Nancy Botwin.
Unfortunately, Kohan loves her characters, so I suspect I’ll be left waiting.