Orange Is the New Black (2013- ) has generated a lot of discussion. Its success through Netflix seems to cement the wide-ranging industrial changes in adapting to and supporting binge-watching. Its ensemble of complex female characters has been celebrated as a corrective to male-dominated quality television. But if Orange means something for contemporary television, it’s important to examine how the show’s formal features might compare with other media forms. Such comparisons can offer hints about how some of television’s pleasures are being figured today. Spoilers follow.
I. The Prison as Network
The comparison I have in mind is to Jules Dassin’s 1947 prison film, Brute Force. The film concerns Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) and his efforts to escape from a prison that operates under the thumb of Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn). Beyond the superficial similarity of being set in a prison, Brute Force shares two key features with Orange. The first is its narrative structure. The second is the way our sympathies and pleasures are managed along that structure.
While Joe Collins is nominally the main character of Brute Force, he shares nearly equal screen time with a variety of characters – prisoners and prison authorities – who have relative independent storylines of their own. Collins fits the mold of the goal-oriented protagonist typical of classical Hollywood at the time. He needs to escape because his girl needs an operation and she will not go into surgery without him by her side. But the film spends precious little time expanding on this. Dassin’s real interest lies in the consequences that Collins’s plan has for the other characters and the structure of the prison. Collins disappears from the story for long stretches while messages are carried out and intercepted, inmates privately struggle over whether they want to risk escape, and authorities struggle with each other over how to control the inmates.