I used to think that HBO‘s first original dramatic series—“Oz”—was a really good show about life in prison. Despite its over-the-top melodrama and plot holes you could drive a tank through, I certainly enjoyed watching it. I still think it’s good… just not as good as I first thought it was. Especially after watching Jenji Kohan‘s “Orange is the New Black,” on Netflix—the final season of which drops on July 26, 2019—which has much better writing with deeper, more believable and sympathetic characters.
When I first heard about the Netflix series—based on Piper Kerman‘s similarly titled memoir—my first thought was, “So this is going to be ‘Oz’ on estrogen?” That was an oversimplification on my part—and an admittedly sexist one at that. When I finally watched the show, I realized just how wrong I was.
I absolutely loved Harold Perrineau as the narrator on “Oz” but the show kinda hit you over the head with its social commentary and exposition on how screwed up the U.S. criminal justice system is. I think “OITNB” does a much better job of illustrating those problems. Whereas “Oz” would spoon-feed the issues by breaking the fourth wall—albeit in creative and interesting ways—“Orange Is The New Black” shows the audience how different policies and procedures actually affect people. Instead of dramatically reciting statistics and sociological trends, it introduces the audience to complex, multidimensional and relatable characters then puts them through the system, making the experience much more personal for the audience watching.
Hearing about “prisoners” being mistreated by a “system” is vague, academic and impersonal, thus it doesn’t engender much of an emotional response—certainly not one that would motivate someone to try and change said system.
But loyal viewers get to know characters from well-written shows so intimately, that they don’t see them just as the labels they might be assigned by a system. They have affection for them. Those characters become friends and family. When people that one deeply cares for are treated unjustly by a broken system, they tend to take it personally.