Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Larry Smith

A tale of two Larrys

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Jason Biggs and Taylor Schilling on Orange is the New Black

Note: Minor spoilers follow for the second season of Orange is the New Black.

Like all great television shows, Orange is the New Black lends itself to a wide range of interpretation, and it’s inspired diverse readings on such complicated subjects as race, gender, class, mental illness, and the state of the American prison system. There’s one thing on which nearly every viewer agrees, though: Larry is just awful. Piper’s fiancé, as played by Jason Biggs, has become the character fans hate to hate, both in terms of his actions within the plot and in his impact on the series. It’s doubtful that Biggs and series creator Jenji Kohan meant for Larry to come off as so unsympathetic—they certainly keep writing him as if he’s someone we’re supposed to like—but even if they did, I don’t think they intended for his scenes to so consistently derail the episodes in which they appear. He commits the worst sin of any television character: not only is he whiny and selfish, but he’s also a bore, and his writing is pitched at a lower level than the rest of the show. I’ve taken to using the Larry segments as an excuse to pop into the kitchen or refresh a drink, and I know I’m not alone. The excellent writeups by Myles McNutt of The A.V. Club, for instance, relegate all of his scenes to a short section near the end of each review, and it’s accurately titled “Ugh, Larry.”

Not surprisingly, then, I was curious to read the long first-person account published on Medium by Larry Smith, the inspiration for the fictionalized Larry Bloom. Smith, who has a book of his own on the way, comes off as a sane, likable guy—anyone who loves Vertigo and Miller’s Crossing can’t be all that bad—and he seems to be at peace with the negative reaction to his televised doppelgänger. What irks me the most, in fact, is the realization that the show makes Larry Bloom so much less compelling than his counterpart in real life. I don’t fault the writers for wanting to inject more conflict into that relationship, especially in the first season, when it made sense to show Piper’s life falling apart on the outside. Yet Larry’s storylines have been so static and grating that it’s all the more frustrating to discover that the real Larry was up to some pretty interesting things. Unlike the version we see on the show, he became close with several husbands of Piper’s fellow inmates, to the point where he’d carpool with them to the prison, talking logistics and commiserating over their shared situation:

Like at the men’s room at Giants Stadium, where the hedge-fund manager sidles up next to the pipe fitter, we were drawn together for a common cause, feeling exposed and maybe a little sheepish, but fiercely loyal and rooting for the same team.

Piper Kerman and Larry Smith

When I read this, I had an unexpected response: I felt angry. Here was a vein of fantastic material lying in plain sight, ready for use, and the show had refused to recognize it. It’s easy to imagine an alternate version of the series in which Larry’s experience—which brings him into close contact with men he might otherwise never have met—paralleled Piper’s in surprising ways. I’d love to see Larry getting close with Sophia’s family, say, or Red’s, or even just becoming friends with Yoga Jones’s husband, as he evidently did in real life. (Hell, even if you wanted to keep the subplot of Larry’s affair, there are far more interesting prospects in this scenario than the one the show decided to take.) We’d lose what rudimentary sense of contrast Larry’s humdrum existence provides, but given how little the show has been willing to do with it, it doesn’t seem like much of a loss. And while it’s possible that the show is saving its powder to do great things with Larry on his current trajectory, the evidence isn’t promising. It feels like a failure of energy, or curiosity, in a series that otherwise seems possessed of limitless quantities of both. And it’s enough to make me want to write fanfic.

Yet here’s the thing: it’s impossible to know why any show makes one narrative decision over another. Jenji Kohan is a smart, ambitious writer who seems very aware of her audience, and given the complexity of the task that she and her writing staff have set themselves—keeping what seem like twenty overlapping storylines moving forward simultaneously—it’s likely that something had to give. Larry has maybe five minutes of screen time per episode, and loading it up further might have fractured the show in more important places. (There’s a sense in which the Larry scenes function as interludes, or breaks, from the density of the material inside Lichfield: when we’re with Larry, we seem to be watching a different, lesser show, one that follows all the narrative beats we’ve come to expect, so maybe Kohan thought we needed the respite.) It’s easy to second-guess a show once it’s available for us to pick apart, and much harder to set that machine running in the first place. And the rest of the series is so good that I’m ready to grant it some slack in the Larry scenes, if it makes the rest of it possible. I can imagine a show that does all the things I’ve laid out above, but whatever form it took, it wouldn’t be the same series I’ve grown to care about so much. It only rhymes with Orange.

Written by nevalalee

July 16, 2014 at 10:08 am

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