It was billed as the new 'Wire' but I think it only lived up to that exalted rating in a most patchy and superficial sort of way. The Wire was dark and cutting edge throughout. It tore contemporary America to pieces. It touched on a deep alienation within American society that hitherto had seemed beyond the possibilities of any TV script. It held its audiences spellbound for five series and launched a few acting careers in the process. It became a marker for all future and past TV and had credibility in the claim that it was the greatest TV series of all time. 'Orange Is The New Black', despite a number of poignant moments, is most definitely not in that rarefied atmosphere. Too light-hearted, too glib and in places just too crass.


OITNB undoubtedly is a potentially daring script with some innovative structures but too often it plays it for laughs with a fair dollop of gratuitous sex thrown in. Now if explicit sex in your TV viewing is your thing then fair enough, but to be honest the sex did very little to enhance the story lines, on the contrary it merely served to trivialise. When the inmates were freed by the script writers from having unrestrained, non-stop lesbian sex, they were allowed to develop some very complex relationships which were generally convincing. But where OITNB really excelled was in the series of back stories that were created for nearly every character. This lifted the characters out of the standardized comic figures we have learnt to expect from tacky women prison TV shows into something more representative of dysfunctional, modern American life. It was during these interlocking back stories that the show reached its heights.

But there were serious missed opportunities in this series. One of the characters was allowed to comment that their incarceration was part of the American prison-industrial complex. And in the third series the formerly state run prison was taken over by the private sector. This opened up huge possibilities for the script writers. But for reasons best known to them they never really pursued this angle to any great depth. Too political for Netflix perhaps? Too close to the corporate nerve? A difficult balancing act for a company like Netflix. It needs to be topical and challenging in order to get the punters in, but it dare not push things too far least it offends the sensibilities of corporate America.

To be fair, the script writers did skirt around the privatisation issue. They dipped their toe in the water so to speak. Perhaps they were testing the waters so see the reaction. Maybe they will further explore this ugly part of American life in future series. We shall see. In the meantime it is left to the likes of Angela Davis to develop the critique of America's rapidly growing prison-industrial complex. This she does with both great intelligence and style. It is not the 'war on crime' that we are witnessing in the USA, says Davis, but rather a war on poor people. And it is largely the impoverished communities of America that find themselves incarcerated; the unemployed white working class, the Black and Hispanic communities and the indigenous North Americans. But to put the matter bluntly, the axe falls disproportionally on people of colour. Davis points out unambiguously that there is both a class and a race dimension at work in America's criminal justice system, and one thing is sure, there are very few white wealthy people behind bars in America. America has the highest rate of incarceration of any country on the planet and there might be a very good reason why that is so. America's corporates have learnt to profit massively from locking up ever greater numbers of people. It is, as they have quickly discovered, an inexhaustible source of cheap labour.

America's corporate sector, Davis explains, profit from America's growing prison system in three ways. Firstly there is the building of the prisons  a massive boast to the domestic construction industry. Secondly there is the running of the prisons a great source of steady income to the ever expanding security industry in America. Thirdly, and this is the most sinister part, the growing prison population provides a huge reservoir of virtual slave labour. This has proved a perfect partner to the exploitation that goes on relentlessly in the developing world by America's corporates, of which companies like Nike are at the very forefront. Sweat shops in Indonesia and Vietnam alongside prison slave labour back at home. It is proving to be the perfect corporate model for circumnavigating domestic demands for a living wage.

In OITNB the inmates are quickly put to work by the newly privatised prison, producing clothing garments for corporate sale, but this story line quickly becomes trivialised by the script-writers. In 'The Wire' this sort of story-line would have been fully developed with all its sordid implications. In OITNB it is allowed to drift off into a hardly believable side story offering the viewer some cheap and shallow titillation. In this way America's corporate regime is left largely unscathed. Another wasted opportunity for some serious script-writing.

OITNB is a good enough series, thought-provoking and entertaining in equal measure, but it could have been and should have been a whole lot more.

End JPK Copyright 30/7/15

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Last Updated ( Monday, 21 May 2018 05:57 )