Tag Archives: Orange is the New Black

From Screen to Page: Orange is the New Black and The Wire

from screen to page logoFor this installment, I’ll be talking about two shows, and how they use language, specifically to make the dialog of their characters feel realistic. More specifically, this comes in two forms: swearing and lingo.

First a little about the shows. The Wire ran on HBO from 2002 to 2008, with five seasons totaling 60 episodes. The Wire is, at its core, a show about Baltimore, West Baltimore to be specific. While there are a number of police officers at the center of the show, it isn’t a cop show per se, and it’s certainly not a procedural (shows like Bones, or Dragnet). The cast is huge and sprawling, and includes the aforementioned cops, as well as drug dealers, addicts, lawyers, politicians, longshoremen, reporters, judges, teachers, parents, clergy, and children.

Orange is the New Black is a a Netflix original series, the first season of which debuted in July 2013. The show follows Piper Chapman, an upper-middle class white woman who is sentenced to 15 months in a minimum security women’s prison. The show explores the kinds of relationships and problems that arise in such places, and while the bulk of the characters are prisoners, the prison staff and Chapman’s family play an important role, as do people connected to the other prisoners, often presented in flashbacks.

Both shows make liberal use of vulgarity, emboldened by their relative safety from the FCC. Part of the reason I haven’t shared clips of the shows is that it would be next to impossible to find any that were “safe for work,” so I didn’t bother. The kind of characters the shows deal with tend to use “colorful” language in their day-to-day life, the kind of language that can’t be heard on regular television, gets censored on the radio, and earns your move an “R” rating. The use of this language is important though, because when gangsters and prisoners and cops use watered down vulgarities, the characters sound unrealistic. This kind language, whether people like it or not, is a part of daily life everywhere in the world, and shows like The Wire and Orange is the New Black purport to present the real world as closely as possible (albeit as fiction).

I’ve had students in the past ask whether or not they should include vulgarities within quotations in their term papers, and I always tell them yes, if it’s relevant. Quoting historical figures swearing because you want to be “edgy” or try and freak out your professor or teaching assistant is ridiculous (and I swear constantly in real life, so it wouldn’t have bothered me anyway). But if a quote from a historical figure is particularly relevant to your argument, and it contains some vulgarity? Include it. Continue reading

Jam of the Week: “You’ve Got Time”, by Regina Spektor

I had heard of Regina Spektor before July 15th, of course, but I had never heard her before then, when I started watching Orange is the New Black on Netflix. “You’ve Got Time” serves as the theme song, and was recorded for the show.

I want to compare “You’ve Got Time” to System of a Down’s “Prison Song.” System (one of my favorite bands, mind you) puts things bluntly in the song: prisons are a way to control Americans, and American society relies too heavily on incarceration to hide its problems. There’s even a more-or-less spoken word section about the growth of the American prison system.

“You’ve Got Time,” on the other hand, is laden with metaphor, which seems like a good decision for a song about prison life. Metaphor is an important part of the English language, and kind of central to artistic expression. On the one hand, it’s possible for different audiences to interpret metaphors in different ways. On the other hand though, when an artist flat out tells you what they’re talking about it feels…less artistic.

I think it’s safe to say that Spektor is also criticizing the prison system (that’s a central theme of the show, after all) but she uses metaphor to help put the listener into the shoes of an inmate. “You’ve Got Time” isn’t about prison, it’s about the experience of prison. This is an important distinction.

When you’re writing something, any kind of piece really, it helps to really think about what you’re saying. There’s a big difference between knowing about something and experiencing it first hand, and there’s a big difference between telling someone about something, like prison life, and helping them understand the experience of that thing. I expect that, when done well, the latter is more powerful than the former: if you’re trying to reform prisons, for example, just telling people why prisons need to be reformed might not sink in, while showing them the details of prison life, in a show or a song, might be more effective. It’s just as possible to walk a mile, or something close to one, in someone else’s shoes through a song as through actual experience.