I’ve had a love-hate relationship with television producer Jenji Kohan for several years now. I loved the initial season of her suburban pot-themed dramedy Weeds, but the romance quickly cooled, as the show descended from lighthearted laughs into a violent, lurid soap opera. Personally, from a writing perspective, I felt she could have easily coaxed several more seasons out of the fertile original premise without embracing so many whiplash inducing plot twists, but she’s rich and famous and I’m writing this blog, so what do I know? As a consumer of her work, the final straw for me was a gleefully transgressive episode where Kevin Nealon’s character infiltrates a cultlike evangelical sect. I’m no great fan of so called “conservative Christianity,” but as a Christian myself, I felt like she was crossing lines that I couldn’t cross with her. By that time, I had already become disenchanted with the self-destructive lead character, so giving up the show was no great sacrifice.
A few years later, Jenji and I worked out our differences when the much superior Orange is the New Black premiered. Superficially similar to the late seasons of Weeds, Orange follows a young middle-class woman’s drug-related trip to prison. Raunchy, hilarious, and surprisingly heartfelt, with a strong ensemble cast, Orange was a winner. Even in the first season, however, there were still moments that set my teeth on edge, most of them revolving around the murderous evangelical meth-head and anti-abortion crusader, “Pennsatucky,” presented in the first season as a hillbilly caricature straight out of Deliverance (The Female Version).
My sense of discomfort increased when I read the true-life memoir by Piper Kerman that inspired the series. In contrast to the often cartoonish characters portrayed on the Netflix series, their real-life counterparts came across as sympathetically observed, three-dimensional human beings. Suddenly, I was no longer sure about how I felt about their names and likenesses being exploited for laughs. Then too, it became clear that the animosity towards religion was purely an invention of the show. The real Piper didn’t come across as personally religiously inclined, but her writing displayed genuine respect for the religious people she encountered and their faith.
I did decide to give the series one more chance, however, and was rewarded with the excellent second season, which truly allowed its versions of the characters to grow and develop into real people of their own. Even Season One’s Pennsatucky was allowed to show some signs of humanity (and I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the amazing work of Season Two’s Lorraine Toussaint, whose portrayal of a warmly charismatic sociopath enlivened and animated the latter half of the season).
Things came to a screeching halt for me, however, in just the fourth episode of the promising new season –and it wasn’t because of the increasingly Weeds-like self-destructive narcissism of the once appealing lead character. Rather, it was once again religion.
I had already made peace with the series’ general dislike of religion, and I might even have looked past the episode’s deliberately shocking litany of blasphemies. But what really turned me off was the self-righteous preachiness of the episode. It was like an atheist Chick tract. The message of the episode could have just as well been painted in big block letters on the wall, and that message was that religion is a dirty, bad, and oppressive superstition. Too late, I realized the bait-and-switch of the previous episodes. What I had read as the humanization of the series’ only prominent Christian characters, Pennsatucky and Sister Ingalls, turned out to be just an element of the propaganda. The price for the characters becoming real people was for them to renounce their religious beliefs.
If I do quit watching, I’m sure Jenji will neither note nor mourn my departure. I’m sure she doesn’t count on any Christians being in the target audience for her subversive, drugs-nudity-and-sex filled prison romp. As for me, I guess, I’ll just have to find something else to watch –preferably something that doesn’t insult either my intelligence or my faith.
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