TELEVISION REVIEW: "Orange is the New Black"


When I first heard about the new Netflix Original Series Orange is the New Black, I had not planned on watching it.  Despite my near-addiction to the online streaming service and the high-visibility ad campaign I saw everywhere around town, it just didn’t seem like a show that would appeal to me.  I know nothing about the prison drama genre and it did not exactly seem like the light, humorous fare I normally seek out during the summer.

However, when rave reviews started rolling in from nearly every publication I read, I knew I had to give Orange is the New Black a shot.  Well, I have finished four episodes of the thirteen-episode run (which is available in its entirety on Netflix Instant), so I think I can rightfully declare my enjoyment of what so far is proving to be a darkly humorous, emotionally charged and extremely well-acted piece of television.


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Loosely based on a memoir by Piper Kerman, Orange is the New Black centers around the intriguing cast of characters inhabiting a women’s prison in Litchfield, New York.  The pilot episode, “I Wasn’t Ready”, tells us the story of our de facto protagonist.  Piper Chapman, played by Taylor Schilling, is a WASP with a comfortable lifestyle in New York City.  She and her friend make and sell designer soaps and lotions, and she has a loving fiancĂ© (played by Jason Biggs).  When the pilot opens, Piper has been sentenced for fifteen months in federal prison.  Her crime?  Just after graduating college, she carried drug money for her then-girlfriend Alex (played by Laura Prepon).  At first Piper thinks that prison will become a cute anecdote for her blog, allowing her time to exercise and become adept at crafts, but she soon realizes that she is in over her head in her frightening, strange environment.  Taylor Schilling gives Piper the necessary delicacy and timidity to engage our sympathy for her, but as Piper learns the rules and begins to play the game of surviving in her new environment, Schilling imbues her with enough grit and edge to make her transition from scared newcomer to savvy inmate believable. 

While Orange is the New Black may begin with Piper's "fish out of water" story, she is by no means the sole protagonist of this series.  Orange is the New Black is perhaps one of the most diverse and progressive television shows right now in terms of its portrayal of race and sexual orientation.  Around half of the characters are women of color, and many of the characters are queer.  What’s refreshing is that these women are not mere stereotypes of what their otherized traits would imply—they are well-developed, human characters with real needs, motivations, and emotions.  

As the show progresses, other engaging characters begin to take the spotlight, with Piper sometimes relegated to the B-story.  Each episode highlights an individual inmate or a particular relationship between inmates, with interspersed flashbacks giving the characters in question backstory, motives and emotional depth.  A specific standout in this regard is Sophia, played by Laverne Cox.  In what I’ve read is an extremely rare example of a transgender woman of color playing a transgender woman of color, Sophia’s story arc is given a real sense of depth, dignity, and pain.  Before prison, Sophia, who was male-assigned at birth, was a firefighter with a wife and son.  She was well into her transitioning to a female body, which had been a source of conflict with her family, when she was arrested for stealing credit cards from burning homes she and her team extinguished.  However, due to the apathy and greed of the officials running the prison, her necessary hormone pills have been drastically reduced, meaning that her newly female body will go through a painful menopause, undoing all of her hard work thus far.  Cox, a transgender activist, turns in a virtuoso performance with sensitivity and honesty.

Another early standout is Red, who runs the prison kitchens, played by Kate Mulgrew.  In the second episode, “Tit Punch”, Piper gets on Red’s bad side by insulting the prison food.  In response, Red’s reaction is to punish Piper slowly and painfully by starving her out and by intimidating the other inmates into not feeding Piper.  Mulgrew manages to connect the pain and rejection from Red’s backstory, (which we are given glimpses of during the episode) and the grudge-bearing, bitter current Red in a way that makes us, as the audience, pity the episode’s de facto villain.  Additionally, Natasha Lyonne's Nikki, a brash former addict, and Michelle Hurst's Miss Claudette, an stern, harsh older inmate with a sense of gravitas and a truly compelling backstory, are also standouts among the cast.

The show manages a balance of in-the-gut emotional moments and a patina of snarky humor, both of which the show uses to address the daily indignities, trials, and tribulations of prison life, as well as its moments of bonding and real, human interaction.

While this show is excellent overall, it has some less ideal aspects.  A subplot involving Alex, Piper’s ex-girlfriend, veers dangerously into clichĂ©d soap-opera territory.  The show’s insistence that Piper “used to be a lesbian” and is now “straight” is a rather narrow-minded way of looking at Piper’s sexuality.  A character introduced early on merely as “Crazy Eyes” (played by Uzo Aduba), thus far, hasn’t gotten much development despite her importance in a Piper-related plotline.  The prison guard referred to as “Pornstache”, played by Pablo Schreiber, is legitimately creepy and unsettling. I cannot decide whether his character is there to lend the series more realism or to create a designated villain.  Perhaps it’s a case of the actor doing his job well that his character is so unlikeable and unnerving.  Additionally, the first episode focuses too much on Piper and her adjustment to life in prison. I would have liked to have some of the other characters introduced as major players early on, because their stories are just as, if not more, compelling.  It is also disappointing that it took a show about prison for there to be such an array of compelling portrayals of women of color.

Orange is the New Black is not a show for everyone.  It has a dark subject matter, graphic nudity and explicit sexual scenes, and mature language and themes (it's rated TV-MA).  However, it is absolutely well worth watching for its mix of drama and humor.  

It’s extremely refreshing for a show to have such a strong cast of female characters who, rather than worry about romance and men, build real relationships with other women and fight to survive in a difficult, dehumanizing environment.  For viewers who want to see characters on television (so to speak) who reflect aspects of society that are often abused and/or ignored, it is a powerful piece of programming.  



Comments

  1. I'd heard much the same about Piper's relationship from others who watched the show. Coming to terms with one's sexuality might very well be used for character development, but most works of fiction seem to think sexuality is just plot-dependent, especially for women; queer people in prison or facing hard times are either straight in flashbacks or (as in this case) in epilogue situations. Which inevitably leads people to assume that the weakling straight women is stronger when she "becomes" lesbian, or that the miscreant lesbian is more responsible when she "becomes" straight.

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  2. Just started watching - loving this show!

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