I just finished OITNB’s second season and I wonder. Season one was received enthusiastically because of its representation of diverse female characters. In the first season, these amazing characters were based on the killer quality of dramatic storytelling. In every detail, every storyline and episode, characters had a perfect dramatic want and a strong motivation. Every move to reach the goal caused another even more troublesome obstacle and pushed the characters deeper into questioning their values and loyalties– until in the end we see the main protagonist, Piper, quoting Stanley Kubriks’ Space Odyssey opening – the birth of man in the spirit of killing, in blood-thirsty rapture. That by itself would have probably worked in any prison story but in OITNB 1, the storylines where so perfectly interwoven that we felt the plausibility of her action in an empathetic and cathartic manner that confronted the audience member with its very own killer ape/thanatos/real.
Now in season 2 characters are just being characters. Things are happening. The makers avoid one prominent protagonist and emphasize on cast and egalité. OINTB 2 has become a post-modern narrative with all the benefits that come with leaving dramatic storytelling behind – and with all its downsides. The audience member is hindered to identify and remains aware of watching TV instead. The form acknowledges and encourages the presence and participation of the audience member. Since no longer sucked into a story, the audience member is invited to critical thinking – and thus I found leisure to notice that subcultural groups in Litchfield prison (“it’s not racist, it’s tribal”) out-perform each other. At times, diversity feels clichéd, exhibited, and misused. I began to wonder what ‘tribal’ is actually suppose to mean. In Édouard Glissant’s concept of difference (and “negritude”), cultural identity presupposes co-existence of cultures. In OINTB 2 too often ethnic groups don’t interact driven by a cause and effect driven storyline but because they spent screen time together. Representing culture as such and not embedded in story means performing culture and not co-existing. Groups perform culture for others. Culture is externalized, triggered by the presence of the other, and not by the driving force of story. Without storytelling, cultural identity presupposes the other, more so: the threat of the other. It implies, that if the other wouldn’t be, group members wouldn’t need to differentiate. Culture – and therefore identity- becomes dependent. For me that’s the main weakness of OITNB’s second season: deprived from the functionality of story, ethnic groups perform their culture for us, the audience.