Sunday, 22 September 2013

The Extremely Good Fan Strikes Orange is the New Black

Warning: this post contains spoilers for Orange is the New Black.

In her commentary on this past week’s episode of Breaking Bad, Emily Nussbaum brought up the idea of “bad fans”:

All shows have them. They’re the “Sopranos” buffs who wanted a show made up of nothing but whackings (and who posted eagerly about how they fast-forwarded past anything else). They’re the “Girls” watchers who were aesthetically outraged by Hannah having sex with Josh(ua). They’re the ones who get furious whenever anyone tries to harsh Don Draper’s mellow.

She even notes that some shows eventually build their “bad fans” (or Bad Fans) into the shows in some way: Sopranos had the Cleaver horror films, Breaking Bad created Todd who worships Walt, etc.

Of course, the idea that there are Bad Fans necessarily implies there are Good Fans. Good Fans note the subtlety of the show. They see Breaking Bad as the morality tale it is meant to be. They appreciate the familial drama of the Sopranos and enjoy watching the gradual invasion of the feminism and racial politics and Vietnam into Mad Men. They may find the protagonists fascinating or charming, but they never side with them.

In fact, if any show had a Good Fan built into its universe, it would be Sopranos with Tony’s psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi. Throughout the show, Melfi seems to flirt with the idea of growing to like Tony as a person, or allowing herself to be taken in by his affability; ultimately, however, she always shocks herself back to reality that he is a mob boss and a Bad Man. Even when she is faced with a trauma (and I won’t go into detail for those of you who haven’t watched it), she considers acting like one of the other characters on the show, only to remind herself of her superior moral compass.

That’s what a good fan does: like the character for his craft and his charm, but ultimately remind herself that she must deplore that character for his morality.

But is there such thing as an Overly Good Fan? Is there a fan so adroit at reading the genre of Quality TV that s/he overreads a new protagonist and ultimately passes the steps of being charmed and evaluating to go to the typical endpoint: despising the protagnoist? In the case of Orange is the New Black, I would say so.

From my current experience, Orange is the New Black does not have a lot of Bad Fans. I haven’t really met anyone who views Piper as the model that all other characters must be judged against, or agrees with Piper's statement that everyone who is in prison deserves it (and has made bad choices), or thinks that prison is a good system.

It has a decent amount of Haters (the paranoid readings of this show are countless). In fact, the only people who take the line about Piper and all others making “bad choices” as the show’s POV (a job that should be left for Bad Fans) are the Haters who do so in order to critique the show.

It has many Good Fans, who grasp that this show interrogates Piper’s POV and racial/class priveledge and that Orange is the New Black does so in order to explore the interiority of other characters of less frequently showcased races and classes.

And then it has Extremely Good Fans. These people hate Piper. To them, she is nothing but a stuck-up, privileged, self-centered rich white bitch. Even very smart, nuanced readers of the show (as shown, for example, here in the last caption in an otherwise brilliant, incisive article) do not like her.

Now Piper has her problems. She’s definitely narcissitic at times, she’s lived a sheltered life, and to an extent gets preferential treatment (until that turns on her). But does she really in fact deserve to be lumped into the same category as the murderous Tony Soprano and Walter White and the solipsistic, avaricious, deceitful Don Draper? Even if she did, doesn’t she deserve at least to get that “We find her really likeable but…” detour that these characters get from Good Fans on their journeys?

It seems as if these fans have taken Alex’s and Larry’s season finale comments about Piper at face value: she is a force of evil narcissism - nothing she suffers is anything but her fault. They disregarded how self-centered Larry is and how Alex had admitted just the prior episode that she’s a “ruthless pragmatist” who ready to sell Piper out. Heck, they even seem to take Piper’s own depression-fueled self-hatred at face value. Ultimately, Piper has earned and deserved all that has happened to her in the first season. She may be the real villain of the show.

Orange is the New Black, a very smart show, a show that almost feels designed for grad students who debate representational politics, to me seems like it has anticipated this reading. And where other shows create avatars for their bad fans after the fact, I cannot help but wonder if Alex, or even Piper herself, become avatars for the Extremely Good Fans. The critiques these two lodge against Piper in the final episodes seem to anticipate much of the internet reaction. But if Orange is the New Black has shown us anything about itself, it's that one person's point of view should never be fully accepted.

Call me crazy (or privileged) but I find Piper to be flawed but sympathetic. She’s not our moral compass by any means. She probably needs a good deal of therapy and the occasional slap of reality. But she’s a pretty real-feeling person who, despite her problems, is ultimately a character I like and want to see turn out okay by the time Orange is the New Black reaches its final episode. So why don’t Extremely Good Fans feel the same way?

One reason simply could be that these fans have gotten too used to Quality TV and immediately assume characters aren’t supposed to be sympathetic or relatable any more. The hatable protagonist is almost formulaic now. And no one wants to be the naive Bad Fan.

Or perhaps Piper starts from a less likeable place. Walter White, for all his problems, may appeal more to a Cultural Studies mindset; he needs to defy The State to cope with Capitalism, whereas Piper’s whiteness is thrown in our face. Walter’s story is about the underdog climbing up; Piper’s is the high being brought down. We’re more used to cheering on the former.

Maybe it’s an unfair comparison since the Extremely Good Fans of Orange is the New Black may be turned off by Mad Men or Sopranos due to all the Bad Fans. Insert your own Apples and Oranges joke here. Maybe it's the fact that we think we know Piper will turn out fine and write a book and sell that book to Netflix (though honestly, by now, considering this show to be in any way a biopic seems to be risking being another Bad Fan). Or maybe, just maybe, we’re just more comfortable with guys breaking the rules.

Whatever the reason, I’m not so ready to leave Piper to the SHU so I can focus on the other characters. In the end, I may be Team Suzanne (and even she thinks Dandelion’s all dried up), but I still need to remember that as wise as she may have sounded that scene (and as awesome as she can quote Shakespeare), she still can get pissed off. She's still written as human. She's still fallible. She's not an author's mouthpiece. She’s a combo of sympathetic and messed up, like most of the other inmates are, thanks to the nuanced writing in this show. And maybe only seeing the former in Piper would make you a Bad Fan…but only seeing the latter, as some of the Extremely Good Fans are doing, just turns you into a Bad Fan by any other name.

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