I’ve been flirting with dumping Netflix for some time: That terrible customer service debacle a few years back. The fact that despite their extensive classic movie DVD library, their classic movie streaming choices are tired, and frequently movie-of-the-week bad. The prices I have to pay to watch two of my favorite current shows–Veep and The Americans–elsewhere.
But Netflix retains me with the television fare they DO have. Many of my beloved comedies still play there, including Psych (yes, I embrace my juvenile side) and It’s Always Sunny (which I would argue had the best satires on both gun control arguments and our treatment of the mentally ill in recent seasons). And then there are its foreign TV shows, which are fascinating and frequently feminist, as with Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.
So do I stay, or do I go?
My flirtation ended last night. My loyalty is secured. Orange Is the New Black‘s season 4 finale was not only brilliant, but important. The final images from that and the penultimate show are lingering, as riveting stories do, helping me recognize nuances I missed on the first pass. I’m not sure whether Netflix execs are enlightened, or its creators masters of spin, but either way, I don’t care: Marvel’s Jessica Jones and OITNB had more to say about rape culture and racism, respectively, than almost anything else I’ve read or watched in the last few years.
Marvel’s Jessica Jones
Let’s start with Jessica. The weird thing is that I watched the show at all. I have never bought a comic book. My 80s nostalgia for the Hulk and Wonder Woman notwithstanding, I have little interest in comics, graphic novels, anime, video games, or superhero stories.
I’d never heard of Jessica Jones, and wasn’t impressed by her dull name (this from a Williams, but I digress). The ads and reviews, however, kept saying noir, catnip to the classic movie fan, so yes, I gave it a try.
How to explain it? More eloquent voices have already chimed in on its influence, so I’ll just say that its portrayal of the aftermath of rape was devastating. The show captures the heroine (and victim’s) trauma and the insidious reactions of others around her to it: The lack of belief in what happened to her. The ignorant assumptions that a domestic violence victim can easily leave his/her abuser. The belief of the monstrous villain that she could love him. The wider society’s privileging of his viewpoint over hers. The terrifying use of smiling, and all it implies about how women are treated.
The intensity and darkness of the show are lightened by Jessica’s (Krysten Ritter’s) snarky sarcasm and wit. She is, indeed, like the noir private investigators before her.
Fascinatingly, the show uses enough of its superhero trappings (and is so suspenseful) that you don’t realize how thoroughly it’s portraying its message until you mull on it afterward. And how moving that message is: that the victim who fights for others like her is as superheroic as they come.
Orange Is the New Black, Season 4
The diverse cast alone is reason to watch: when else will you see women of so many shapes, sizes, colors, ethnicities in starring roles? Forget the main character, Piper. She’s just there as an introduction, and functions only to remind us that white privilege doesn’t die behind prison doors. By focusing on a minimum security prison, with inmates often there for foolish, momentary (and sadly frequently, bad romantic) choices, the show enables us to put ourselves in the women’s place. And once there, we are hooked on their stories, soon relating even to those who have committed grave crimes.
Previous seasons focus on other villains, but this season firmly placed the private prison system in its crosshairs, to devastating effect. People argue whether this show is a comedy or drama (when it’s of course both), but the drama definitely trumps this season, the comedy only there to relieve it. Jenji Kohan, the show’s creator, clearly wanted to indict the immorality of this privatization, and how it furthers the prejudice already inherent in the prison system. At first I thought the primary focus was on our criminalization of mental illness, and indeed, that is one of the saddest arcs of the season. But ultimately, the focus is on race: how it affects the corrections officers’ actions, how even well-meaning white prisoners (and by extension, the wider society) miss the significance of Black Lives Matter. I don’t think you can miss that significance after watching Season 4. Of course, you can’t fully feel the season’s impact if you haven’t fallen for the show and its characters over Seasons 1-3. But that just means you have more good material in front of you….
Are either of the shows perfect? No. But the flaws don’t take away from what they’re accomplishing in terms of messages and storytelling.
Of course, it’s possible Netflix will later lose its way. But while these are its choices for original programming, they’ve got me.
**Note: the Justice Dept. just said they’d end the use of private prisons.