I don’t have to tell any of you what Orange is the New Black is. (If I do, go do some research. I’ll wait.)
The first season was interesting. I watched the fuck out of it in two binge sessions, in part over respect for the book, in part for Captain Janeway, in part for the objective quality of the story and production.
But then it started to suck. And why it sucks is an important thing for writers to learn from.
Thing is, as the second and third (and fourth) seasons developed, they gave us insights into the backgrounds and lives of the (at least from the perspective of the first season) secondary characters. This wasn’t a bad idea exactly, but the execution was a problem.
I’ve seen this problem before. I might have mentioned once or twice how I’m an avid player of role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons and GURPS. For those who don’t know, those games often simulate combat. Some folks say they want those rules to be as realistic as possible. I disagree, because “roll to see if you pee yourself” isn’t fun for anybody. The rules should instead create an entertaining illusion.
Too much realism makes entertainment not entertaining.
In the case of Orange is the New Black, they overcorrected toward realism with the stories of those secondary characters. Occasionally interesting and relatable people end up in prison. Most of the time, though, inmates tend to be kind of stupid, kind of mean, and really boring.
Which describes all of the characters we’ve been exploring in the subsequent seasons of Orange. They made the characters too damn realistic. They made them like (unusually attractive) inmates. Stupid. Mean. Boring.
Not folks I’m going to relate to. Not folks I’m likely to root for.
Rory Miller, a man I deeply respect and actively like, wrote Violence: A Writer’s Guide. It’s a solid work on some of the realities of violence, and important for people who think they know violence to understand. It dives deep into the yucky of that world, and does provide excellent insight into the psychology of violence and of violence professionals. A writer who wants to write the motivations of criminals and cops well should read this book.
On the other hand, his advice on how to write violent scenes makes the same mistake. Realistically written violence isn’t entertaining. Writing violence well consists of myriad small skills, very few of which are related to writing a realistic scene.
Which brings me back to Orange.
The stories they tell touch on some important social issues, in a highly visible way that might actually change some minds or at least raise awareness. And if that’s their plan, then the realistic portrayals of these unfortunates might be exactly what’s called for.
But as writers, our job is to entertain. Even if we’re making a point. Entertaining stories grab more readers. Convert more thoughts. Engage more people. Don’t make the mistake of making realism more important than entertainment.