FEATURE: Why It Works: Emotional Distance in Orange

Orange's awkward, insecure leads can be hard to watch at times, but the show's unique framing helps to bring them to life. Today we'll explore the distance between Naho, Kakeru, and our own voices.

Hello again, everybody! For the last two weeks, I’ve written about the various ways JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure manages to harness the tools of horror movies to make its drama land. Today I’ll be digging into another show that oddly reminds me of horror movies, but in a very different way: tearful teen drama Orange.

Orange is one of my favorite shows this season, which isn’t very surprising: I’m a sucker for shows that dig deep into their characters’ feelings, and prioritize internal emotional states over external drama. But like many adolescent dramas, Orange can be a painful watch at times. Just like you might yell at a character to Not Open That Door when you’re watching a horror movie, so too do adolescent heroes prompt much yelling, generally along the lines of “why can’t you just say you like him!” or “no! Why aren’t you following her?!?” And at times, this can be a distancing phenomenon.


It’s inherently difficult to engage with character dramas directly on the level those characters are experiencing them, because we are not on that level. We’re watching the drama play out on-screen, and beyond that, we have perfect information. We’re not constrained by the emotional/relationship risks the characters are taking, and we have both the wisdom of experience (presumably) and the knowledge of all character tells that exist to make clear to us whether or not a certain confession will go well or poorly. The difference between being one of the teenage protagonists considering a confession and being a member of the audience watching them do it is the difference between contemplating jumping off a cliff and riding a roller coaster - we might feel tense during the ride, but we’re not wagering any of the things the characters are putting on the table.

What I find interesting about Orange specifically is that it makes this standard distance between the characters and the audience part of the actual text. Orange’s framing device, wherein we’re looking back at the mistakes of past Naho with all the experience of future Naho, turn the difficulty of acting on information even when you know you’re right to into a legitimate theme of the story. Teenage Naho isn’t generally held back by complete uncertainty about what will happen next; she’s held back by the fact that even though she knows what she’s “supposed” to do, we arrive at the ability to act from experience by actually experiencing hardship, and not just by being told what actions are right or wrong. We all have to make our own mistakes, because it is only through the bruises of experience that we learn more about ourselves and the world around us in a felt, emotional sense.


This concept wouldn’t work unless Orange respected its audience in dramatic terms - but fortunately, Orange is very good at managing the balance of character feelings and dramatic necessity. There are many scenes in Orange where Naho or Kakeru just barely brush up against the limits of their confidence, scenes that would naturally inspire that classic “just kiss already” sense of audience rage (something the show even cheekily acknowledges). In many dramas, that frustration is warranted - character dramas that continue for many seasons are often predicated on keeping potential couples in dramatically fertile “will they or won’t they” space, mining the audience’s investment in a potential relationship until their stasis defies all believability. But though Orange is slow-paced, it never feels artificial; sequences like Kakeru oh-so-smoothly asking “which of your friends would you like to ask you out,” or Naho pinning all her feelings for Kakeru on a line like “I’ve been waiting all day to watch the fireworks with you,” ring true to the fragility of adolescence while actually pushing their relationship forward.

All of this would still be fine material in the absence of the framing device, but by drawing attention to our perspective existing outside of the characters, Orange emphasizes both the safety of our own perspective and the limitations of the characters, making them seem all the more human. Older Naho’s purpose-driven letter seems almost like a stand-in for the “narrative trajectory,” a rail line that young Naho and Kakeru must navigate in addition to their own feelings. By making the artificial nature of this rail line explicit, we can more clearly see that while Naho and Kakeru often seem “illogical” in their actions, they’re acting on incomplete information and personal feelings that are at times wholly unrelated to the larger plot. The show’s latest episode perhaps made this disconnect more explicit than ever before, when in response to Naho finally accepting destiny and prodding Kakeru to talk about his mother, he revealed he was preoccupied with a source of self-hatred Naho never could have predicted. Characters aren’t real people, but it’s only by accepting the disconnect between their theoretical interior selves and our own perspective that we can hope to see them as the multifaceted creations they are.


Connecting with a character drama inherently requires moving beyond yourself, and empathizing with someone who doesn’t share all of your own feelings. Great shows are able to articulate the common humanity in perspectives apart from our own, but all stories rely on our ability to empathize with very different people. Orange makes explicit how far from its heroes the audience’s perspective lies, and through doing so hopefully brings us to a greater sympathy for why they do the things they do. At the heart of Orange’s power is a direct nod to the audience, asking for their kindness in approaching these mixed-up, melancholy kids.

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