Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Hunger for stories? Anthologies satisfy the craving...

Have you seen Orange is the New Black (OITNB)? It is the original series from Netflix about women in a minimum security prison in Danbury, Connecticut (just a few miles outside of NYC). I'm following this show which has been adapted from the memoir of Piper Kerman, an upper-middle class white woman who landed in prison for drug trafficking for her girlfriend, got out and now works to improve prison conditions for women. It struck me recently that it is similar in its narrative structure to another show that is fueling my story addiction, High Maintenance, about a friendly pot dealer in Brooklyn who services varied Brooklyn clientele in need of their smoke. They are both anthology style series which tell a different story each episode.

"The Guy" From High Maintenance
Though the cultural content is different -one show is about pot smokers and the other prison women- the common anthology structure allows you to deepen your broader cultural understanding of each of these subjects (taking account of the fact that this IS television and not reality, after all). This anthology structure is generative: rather than simply deepening or extending the plot lines of the same four or so characters, the structure displaces the primary characters in favor of narrating the stories of myriad others, who sometimes have only cameo roles.

The payoff is a deepening of an entire profile, archetype or persona, rather than a single individual character. For example, instead of learning about one woman gone bad in Piper Kerman in OITNB over the course of three seasons, we learn about "female prisoners" or "prison dynamics" or, from High Maintenance, which takes the formula even further, "pot smokers". In High Maintenance, we don't even know the pot dealer's name; he's called simply "The Guy" (call "your guy"). He is the vehicle to these varied stories, ranging from comic to melancholic, bringing you all over New York on his bike. The people to whom he delivers, it is their stories that assemble the complex profile of those who smoke pot - these are not stoners รก la Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The characters are like a stack of the veritable Carte-de-visite from the 1800s (later known as "cabinet cards"), only in a narrative version. For the ADD types, it will be very satisfying: it offers a lot of stimulating and changing material so you don't have to invest too much in any single story.

A collection of the Carte de visite from the 19th century

In the case of OITNB, the show certainly grounds itself in and ultimately banks on an ongoing fascination with female same-sexuality (alongside the SCOTUS decision to declare same-sex marriage constitutional).  While there is no doubt many flaws in the representation of prison life on this show, on the sex front, the show is said to be keepin' it real; there is a much discussed strap-on sex scene with Lea Delaria (butch and proud). As much, the show is about the lives of women in prison under a patriarchal supervisory regime in an era of extreme corporatization where, by the third season, the new owners of the prison are creating deeper efficiencies by serving inedible slop in the cafeteria and bringing in bunk beds to double up on the number of inmates. Of course the one key difference between us and them - we are not imprisoned so we can watch the shenanigans from the safety of our couch. While there is a certain camaraderie we could all envy, much of it looks miserable.

With this setup, it is certainly easier to give each of these topics their due: as an audience, we are aware that people are individuals but at the same time, we're so inclined to let single iconic characters represent an entire group. A more nuanced understanding can be built, forcing us to find the thread that runs through all of the character's experience. And because there are so many stories - OITNB fluctuates between the quotidian meanderings of inmates and staff and each of their backstories - what they were like and how they arrived in Danbury while High Main explores the smoker- the personae constructed is multi-dimensional. OITNB has its flaws but in this way, we are allowed to see how we, as the non-prisoners, may not be so different.

So what do we learn about prison women, aside from how they're often low income and that they organize into groups by race, and ethnicity? If you had to choose a defining quality that comes through for all of these stories it is that female prisoners are vulnerable. Vulnerable to rape and pregnancy and violence, to heartbreak both from the loss of time spent with children and family members, the heartbreak of finding love in prison and losing it, to friends leaving, to physical and mental illness, to poverty from the loss of earnings. The list goes on.

High Maintenance, pulls us in with the fantastic absurdity of the characters that one finds in New York. An It Girl who's actually homeless, a recluse caring for his mother in a tiny apartment, a young couple trying to make money by turning their own tiny place into an Air B&B business, a successful writer with writer's block, passing time as a stay-at-home dad cross-dressing and smokin' dope while his wife goes out to work every day. Please open a new browser immediately to go watch the majority of these episodes for free on Vimeo (the final episodes cost a few bucks but well worth the symbolic amount). In the closing credits, The Guy is often found observing a friendly neighborhood nutter.

If you have any ambitions in the world, you might ask yourself how The Guy, this sweet, cool, articulate and sensitive person, perhaps in his late 30s, could not find any other job beyond riding his bike to deliver people drugs. I so crave to know a bit more about The Guy, as much as I enjoy all of his clients' stories. On the flip side, while he suffers certain annoyances in working with demanding people looking for drugs, I find myself asking instead why can't *I* have a job like this? He doesn't have to sit at a desk all day, he is getting a kick ass workout without thinking about it, he gets paid right away in cash and he can afford to occasionally indulge by taking time out to partake in a toke with his favorite clients. These are some of the best moments of the show (case in point is the first episode, only five minutes long where he sits in a bathroom chatting away with a cute hypochondriac from LA). I digress.

More than anything we learn over the course of about 10-15 episodes that The Guy's clients seem stressed and need to relax. Suffering the intensity of urban and middle-class life, they aren't going to Headspace on their IPhones to solve their problems through a meditation app - that would be a very Silicon Valley thing to do. Instead, they are self-medicating in a sort of live-hard-play-hard mantra as they experience the extremes in NYC. It isn't that they are enduring life in a favela - the characters are overall livin' pretty. But the kind of stimulation and human stew you find yourself in in NY lends itself to needing concrete ways of decompressing and this group goes to The Guy for that.

Both of these series are breaking boundaries as part of the first-wave of shows to emerge from the web and mess with the format of television in a number of ways including releasing twelve episodes at once or varying the program length - High Maintenance can tell a story in five minutes or in eighteen. And like the internet itself, the anthology format of these two shows allows us more to think about, play with, explore, identify with. Its format gives us the best hope for not reducing characters to simple stereotypes and it gives us abundant material - it satisfies the craving for stories- for meaning, for understanding and contextualizing our own lives, as well as for recreating them and finding our comfort in the world. They give us some new scripts. They connect us more deeply to different realities. It is fitting that both of these shows originated on the internet, which connects us to those people with whom we can identify. We can see our inner antics out there in front of us and, in the words of Cindy from OITNB, "Suddenly shit be perfectly normal." 

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