Radical Empathy and the Prison-Industrial Complex

Radical Empathy and the Prison-Industrial Complex

Spoilers through to the end of season 5 of Orange Is the New Black.


Orange Is the New Black has become a cautionary tale of the streaming era of television. When it first debuted in 2013, it quickly became hugely popular, one of Netflix’s most watched and acclaimed original series. It was at the forefront of that brief moment when “Netflix original series” meant something: ground-breaking television, exploding our very conception of what television could be. With its sprawling, diverse ensemble cast, binge-friendly structure and mixture of comedy and drama, Orange Is the New Black was the kind of show that was regularly preceded by a “I can’t believe you haven’t seen” and followed by an exclamation mark.

But not anymore. The show’s fourth season was polarising, but its fifth was widely disliked, to the extent it made any impact at all. It’s become just another show in Netflix’s bloated catalogue, just another past-its-prime show that you’ve forgotten is still on the air.

Orange is the New Black seems destined to remain in a sort of TV purgatory,” The Guardian writes, “It has more than enough fans to sustain itself on Netflix and the streaming site is keen to back it considering it’s still one of its most-loved originals. But does it feel as vital as it did when it was first released?”

The answer is supposed to be no, so obviously that it doesn’t need to be said. But here’s the thing: in its latter years, Orange Is the New Black has become something more important and much more radical. I tend to rag on Peak TV quite a bit – if I say something “could only exist in the streaming era” I usually mean that it’s bloated, incoherent and insufficiently concerned with making individual episodes high-quality or enjoyable. The second season of Jessica Jones could only exist in the streaming era, and it fucking sucks. But Orange Is the New Black, too, could only exist in the streaming era: a beacon of light guiding the way to all that streaming television has the possibilities to be.

At what other point in history could a TV series get made – and become hugely popular – that argues, full-throated, for the abolition of prisons?

Continue reading “Radical Empathy and the Prison-Industrial Complex”

Cancelled Too Soon: Sense8

Cancelled Too Soon: Sense8

This article is the part of the Cancelled Too Soon series. Previously, The Booth at the End.


There was a time not that long ago when Netflix could have had an actual identity instead of trying to become all of television by churning out exponentially more content than anyone else. It was a brief moment, between the initial excitement of the binge-viewing boom and the current glut of infinite trash when there were signs that Netflix, whatever else it was, could be the place to find the most innovative and exciting television anywhere in the world. Freed from the content limitations of traditional television, disinterested in dominating the direction of their original series, for a second there, Netflix was making television that was unlike anything else you’d ever seen. Some of it was thematically groundbreaking – Orange is the New Black, BoJack Horseman, Jessica Jones – and some of it was blowing up what we thought television could be as a medium – Lady Dynamite, The Get Down and, more than any other, Sense8.

But now it’s the future and the ones that were redefining the medium are all cancelled and Jessica Jones is gone to shit and Netflix’s brand is just excess for its own sake. When someone tells you about a new HBO show, HBO’s reputation tells you what the pull is: high production values, name actors, writer-driven shows with dark and complex themes. When you hear about a new Netflix show, there’s no sense of what it might be, because you’re already thinking about how you’re not going to watch it because you still haven’t watched the fifty other shows Netflix released in the past twenty minutes.

I mean, you haven’t even watched Sense8 yet, and Sense8 is one of the greatest television shows ever made.

Continue reading “Cancelled Too Soon: Sense8”

The Problem with Netflix Originals

The Problem with Netflix Originals

Netflix is a very successful business, and I don’t know the first thing about business, so far be it from me to tell them what they should do. (I know so little about business that I can’t understand why owning a company that has never made a profit has made Jeff Bezos, the Amazon guy, the richest person on the planet.) But I do co-run this blog about pop culture, and Netflix has been one of the most important and transformative forces in film and TV (mostly TV) in recent years. The effects of that have been a mixed bag, but it’s hard to deny their sheer scale.

This kind of scares me, because Netflix’s share price does not seem at all proportionate to its profits, and while I don’t know anything about business I have seen Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, so a part of me is convinced that Netflix will suddenly and unceremoniously collapse one day. Which, aside from anything else, means all the art made exclusively for Netflix might just… disappear? The archival implications of the streaming model are pretty terrifying if you think about it for more than a minute, which is why I’m one of the few people my age that spends her money buying second-hand DVDs.

But, like I said, I don’t know the first thing about business, so that might be nonsense, and my DVD collection might be no different from stockpiling tins of food in a bunker in case the Cold War turned nuclear. But I do think I know a small bit about film and TV, and film and TV is Netflix’s business. So, on that basis I would like to make this humble suggestion to Netflix HQ: stop making so much fucking original content.

Continue reading “The Problem with Netflix Originals”

Art and the Artist

Art and the Artist

If you read a lot of pop criticism and entertainment journalism, you’ll be a familiar with a debate about “separating the art from the artist” or some similar turn of phrase. This is a very old debate, but it’s come to occupy ever more space in discussions about art, especially popular art, in recent years. The main driving force behind its increasing prominence has been the proliferation of online publications covering entertainment news and producing reviews and criticism over the last ten or so years. Such platforms are making more information and commentary on the entertainment industry and more opinions about art available to more people than ever before. Over the years, plenty of people who make art have been exposed for doing bad things, and so naturally the issue of how we should relate to art made by bad people has come up pretty regularly in these publications.

But that was before Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey (for the New York Times) and Ronan Farrow (for the New Yorker) exposed Hollywood mega-producer Harvey Weinstein as a serial sexual predator. I don’t know why this one was the tipping point, but in the months since, dozens of other sexual predators working in the entertainment industry, in news media and in sports have been similarly exposed. In fact, there’s been a seemingly endless wave of revelations about powerful public figures – almost exclusively men, to no great shock – who have abused their power in order to sexually harass and assault other people, including minors.

What used to be a largely seasonal phenomenon of finding out a celebrity was a bad person, getting bombarded with thinkpieces about it and then forgetting about it when something else came along to make you anxious about the world has now become an apparently permanent state of revelation.

Continue reading “Art and the Artist”

Five Years in Hell: a Reflection on the Superhero TV Boom

Five Years in Hell: a Reflection on the Superhero TV Boom

We’re five years into the boom in superhero television kicked off by the surprise success of The CW’s Arrow, and business is so good we’ve somehow strong-armed Noah Hawley into making a show based on a minor X-Men property. But at what cost? Arrow has just come full circle by concluding the story of Oliver’s time in exile and bringing us right back to the opening moments of the show, and the genesis of television’s superhero boom.

Now seems an appropriate time to examine and evaluate the landscape of the genre over the past five years and consider what the future may hold.

Continue reading “Five Years in Hell: a Reflection on the Superhero TV Boom”