The Tube: Television rut relief

In Orange is the New Black, characters develop beyond identity categories.

Lately, I’ve been in a television rut. Few shows have been able to grab my attention enough to stop me from scrolling through imgur or reading Gawker posts while watching. I’ve even felt this way while viewing the most recent episodes of Breaking Bad (gasp!), and I’m not really sure where this boredom is coming from. Maybe I’ve reached my television enjoyment quota? Maybe I need a hobby or line of work that doesn’t involve pixels?

The two shows that have been able to inspire some marathon behavior in me, however, are Orange is the New Black (Netflix) and Orphan Black (BBC America). Everyone reading this column is most likely familiar with the former, as it’s generated quite a bit of buzz and has quickly become another sign of Netflix’s ability to produce quality original programming. The latter is a lesser known gem that has me counting down the days until its second season premiere in April.

Taking one at a time, Orange is the New Black is based on Jenji Kohan’s (the creator of Weeds) memoir detailing her own experience in a women’s prison. The narrative revolves around privileged Piper Chapman, whose main concern in life seems to be whether her partner will fully commit to doing a master cleanse until, of course, she is sent to prison for smuggling drug money. While serving time, Piper meets an amazing array of characters, including a Catholic nun, a transgender woman, a yoga teacher/marijuana farmer, a Russian mob member and her former lover Alex (played by Laura Prepon from That ‘70s Show). Strangely, one of my favorite parts of the show is the seriously creepy, yet attractive, Pablo Schreiber (aka Nick Sobotka from The Wire) who plays the pornstached prison guard–though I am a bit uncomfortable with what my enjoyment of his look and asshole behavior might say about me as a person. Even Jason Biggs, who I generally hate because my best friend in middle school made me watch Boys and Girls (2000) on repeat, is tolerable as Piper’s finance, Larry. I mean, a tolerable Jason Biggs’ character … can you really ask for much more than that from him?

The show at first seems like it’s going to rely on the same tried stereotypes: All of the women form race-based or age-based cliques, exemplified by the group of older women awesomely referred to as “The Golden Girls” and by the voting blocs formed during an inmate advisory council election, as explained by the character Lorna, “Everyone elects a representative from their own tribe: White, Black, Hispanic.” But as each episode plays out, flashbacks reveal the story behind why each woman is serving time and allow for friendships to form across these identity categories. This creates a complex and endearing group of characters that far surpasses what would be achieved by lazily relying on superficial portrayals of race, age or sexual orientation. Especially in regard to sexuality, I think Orange is the New Black does an amazing job of depicting attraction as something fluid instead of static, and women’s pleasure, in particular, as something beautiful.

Orphan Black
BBC American renewed Orphan Black for a second series earlier this year.

On to rut-challenging show number two: Orphan Black. This show is a science fiction series that features a young woman named Sarah Manning (played by Tatiana Maslany), who learns that she is a clone shortly after witnessing an identical woman commit suicide on a train platform. Some of you may be thinking, “Spoiler alert much?,” but this is revealed almost immediately, I swear. Throughout the series, Maslany plays a con artist, police detective, graduate student, suburban soccer mom and numerous other characters, some of which may yet be revealed. The premise is unique and riveting, especially as the origins and physical consequences of being a clone are divulged.

One of my favorite clones in Orphan Black actually turned out to be the soccer mom, Alison. She is conservative, anxious and a perfectionist that desperately tries to protect her family from the truth and from those who are out to harm the clones. This character may not sound particularly interesting considering the bad rap soccer moms get in popular culture, but watching her loosen up, and eventually lose it, throughout the season is seriously entertaining and easy to identify with.

Maslany’s performances alone make the show worth watching. Scenes with multiple clones together showcase her acting chops, as she relies on subtle differences in facial expression and mannerism, as opposed to overplayed caricatures, in order to make each clone unique. One of the best scenes involves an Alison breaking point, mostly because we get to see Maslany play Alison and also Maslany play Sarah playing Alison. Trust me, it will make more sense if you watch. And I honestly forgot on numerous occasions that the same actress played almost every role. As one of my students said: “Tatiana deserves ALL the Emmys.”

I really can’t recommend both Orange is the New Black and Orphan Black enough. They came along just as I was considering turning The Tube into a literary column. Just kidding.

Help Melissa stay out of the television rut by sending your viewing suggestions to or tweeting her @mishmz