It’s Time to Free Orange Is the New Black’s Stars

I didn’t know what to expect when I started the pilot of Orange Is The New Black on the morning of the show’s release in 2012. I was living alone in Los Angeles for a summer internship between my junior and senior years of college. Well, I actually had four roommates, but I felt very much alone. I’d heard about this new series from Jenji Kohan through the internet and my job as a television critic for my school’s newspaper. I started the first episode and couldn’t stop. The Netflix binge model was new and exciting, and I felt compelled to keep going and going and going. It was the most queer characters I had seen on screen at once since The L Word, and I was still mostly in the closet. Even though the first season was so fixed in Piper Chapman’s wealthy white viewpoint, I was struck by all the new faces in the cast, by all the Black, brown, Latina actors comprising the massive and massively talented ensemble. When I finished the season, less than 24 hours later, I was tempted to start all over again. Instead, I followed the entire cast on Instagram.

Much to my joy, these women were obsessed with each other. Or, at least, they appeared to be obsessed with each other on social media. I’m not quite cynical enough to believe their friendships were forced as part of the show’s elaborate marketing campaign. Taylor Schilling celebrated her birthday with the cast! They all post pictures together year round. When I attended a Regina Spektor concert with my girlfriend, we stood feet away from a group of Orange cast members, who all went wild for their own theme song. I remember my delight when many of the cast members were seen together at various Pride events after the first season, a tradition that has continued every year since, with new seasons always dropping during Pride month. Again, I was still struggling with my own sexuality, and as silly as it sounds, seeing these women who I was quickly becoming obsessed with celebrate Pride meant something to me.

Since the beginning, Orange Is The New Black has championed fan interaction. Orange Is The New Black and Netflix didn’t invent television social media campaigns. But because the binge model was new and meant that people could easily watch in a weekend and then move on to the next thing, OITNB had to find a way to stay in the conversation, so it used social media to keep fans active. It even won a Webby for its social media campaign in 2014. But as Raechel Anne Jolie and Melody Hoffmann write for Bitch, the show’s social media presence has become increasingly tone-deaf and counterproductive to shedding light on the horrors and injustices of the prison industrial complex. “From mugshot fan selfies to gimmicky ‘Pornstache’ t-shirts, the Instagram account promotes humor and joviality in the context of imprisonment,” they write.

A show about the horrors of prison shouldn’t make you want to watch it over and over and over again. Orange Is The New Black has always intentionally mixed drama with comedy in a jarring way with varied results. Sometimes, it works, reminding that violence and danger can manifest at any time in prison. But in the later seasons of the show, the writers’ attempts at injecting Litchfield with levity have fallen completely apart. This fifth season attempts to grapple with a prison riot and fails spectacularly. The same problem with the show’s social media presence has seeped into the show itself, mining pain, violence, and racism for comedy to the point where Reneice Charles actually had to remind people that slavery is not funny.

The novelty of the cast’s diversity quickly wore off. If your media representation discourse centers quantity over quality, you’re missing the point. Many of the characters being played by the show’s Black and Latina actresses aren’t necessarily poorly written. They’re dynamic, layered, real. But by constantly inflicting violence on these characters, Orange Is The New Black has created a theater of horror that replicates and even glorifies the real world’s violence toward women of color. And it’s all for what? To make a point? To inspire change? No, it’s grotesque tragedy porn, as Alaina Monts describes in their recap of this season’s most horrifying episode. And it has become far too exhausting as a queer woman of color to watch as the show keeps making jokes out of white supremacy.

And yet there still seems to be a sense among the writers of this show that they’re doing something noble, that they’re inspiring people to care about prison conditions. Jenkins Kohan has said she hopes to “provoke conversation and dissention” with the show. But Orange Is The New Black has inspired viewers to write fanfiction, not to write their representatives who profit from the prison industrial complex. And the cast members have become props in this quest to foster fandom.

While I have become increasingly uninvested in the show, I still care about the cast. I still become embarrassingly giddy when they post pictures together. I still wonder if I’ll see any of them at events in New York. In season five, the writers attempt to coast by on the ta lents of their cast instead of engaging with the prison riot premise in a meaningful way. Yes, Danielle Brooks gives the best performance of her career, and yes she deserves all the awards, but she doesn’t single-handedly save the season. As brilliant as she and Selenis Leyva and Jessica Pimentel and Adrienne C. Moore and many of the other actors are in this new season, it doesn’t change the fact that the show has become the worst version of itself.

I agree with my friend and fellow critic Caroline Framke’s assertion that the best thing the show could do at this point is hit the reset button completely, starting over with new characters. I’d add to that argument that they should also fucking hire Black writers (the fact that it didn’t happen between seasons four and five is ridiculous). But Danielle Brooks has already confirmed she’s on for next season. I think Jenji Kohan and Netflix know full well there are people like me who will follow Danielle Brooks to the end of the earth. Maybe they’ll shake things up, but they’re not going to hit the reset button entirely.

The show has created stars, amassing a huge fan base. But the only good thing to come from Poussey’s death at the end of last season was freeing Samira Wiley to star in other shows. I want to keep seeing these incredibly talented women on television. Never before have my distaste for a show and love for its cast been so at odds. Kohan has been guaranteed two more seasons, and she has said she wants to end it after that. Hopefully, season seven will truly be the end, and hopefully, casting directors will scoop as many of these cast members up as possible. They deserve awards and attention, even if the show no longer deserves being lauded as revolutionary, game-changing television.

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is a Brooklyn-based writer, television critic, and comedian who spends most of her time over-analyzing queer subtext on television, singing "Take Me Or Leave Me" in public places, and assembling cheese platters. She has a cat named after Piper Halliwell from Charmed, and her go-to karaoke song is "Everywhere" by Michelle Branch. Her writing can also be found at The A.V. Club and The Hollywood Reporter, and she wrote the webseries Sidetrack. You can catch her screaming in all-caps about Kalinda Sharma, Jennifer Lopez, and oysters on Twitter and Instagram.

Kayla has written 155 articles for us.

9 Comments

  1. Two more seasons of this dumpster fire? Dear gods.

    I agree that the cast is spectacular and I share your hope that once this nightmare ends their careers will flourish as other shows or movies rush to cast them. My concern is that the horror of the show will end up reflecting poorly on them. Hollywood is still sadly run by white (mostly male, mostly straight) people. And most straight white people still love this show. My concern is that the people who run Hollywood won’t look at the show’s declining ratings and increasing criticism as a problem with the colorless writer’s room. I’m concerned that they will foist it on the cast.

    We’ve heard it before, haven’t we? “No one wants to see characters of color. No one wants to see gay characters. Look, we had a show that centered around Black and Latinx and LGBT characters and people stopped watching it.” I would hate for the horrible writing to reflect poorly on the actresses having to deal with these scripts. I want OITNB to end, but I really, really want it to end well. I sincerely hope and pray they hire some Black and Latinx writers for seasons six and seven, so that when the show ends it can end on a high note and not leave its stain on the careers of these incredibly talented women.

  2. I couldn’t get into this show, too much violence and people treating each other like shit. I don’t want to be reminded of the shitty state of the world when I watch tv. It’s sad that women of colour and queer people have so little options to choose from.

  3. This reminds me of how I felt towards the end of The L Word‘s run…I’d watch/read interviews of the cast and they were all so effusive about the show. I kept thinking, “these are smart women, they can’t possibly think this is good.”It was like I was being gaslit.

    I committed to loving Rose Rollins for life when she went on Liz Feldman’s show and admitted that she wasn’t sad TLW was over, in large part because of how the final season had gone. She said she felt like the show’s final season did a disservice to the characters and the women the show had inspired. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem anyone with Rose Rollins’ commitment to truth-telling affiliated with OITNB.

    (I still wonder if that interview was why Rose wasn’t a part of The L Word reunion a few weeks back.)

  4. YES THIS IS THE ARTICLE IVE BEEN WAITING FOR

    Especially after reading Diane Guerrero’s memoir, I always want these cast members to have a job/be seen but this show has me wondering, at what cost? I dipped after they murdered Poussey in the worst way/the whole backstory they gave Suzanne, but part of me always wonders if I’m doing the right thing in not supporting them? This article helps though.

  5. I agree 100%-I refuse to watch this show after reading the AS recaps of last season. Was very happy to see Samira in The Handmaid’s Tale and Danielle as the agent in Master of None. And of course, Kate Mulgrew is always Janeway. This show is full of great talent and I hope they all get excellent gigs after this!

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.