One of several new shows distributed this year by upstart Netflix, Orange Is The New Black continues a streak of quality from the streaming TV network.
Based on the memoirs of Piper Kerman, the premise follows the turbulent life of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) as she’s sent to a women’s federal prison for a stint of drug smuggling she did years ago. It’s bad enough she’s forced apart from her fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs), bumps into her partner in crime and ex-lover Alex (Laura Prepon), but also has to contend with prison life where one false move can cost you your privileges, your sanity and ultimately your life.
It’s a show dealing with heavy topics, but with a quirky sense of humour alternating between witty rejoinders by hardy criminals, culture clash between inmates, and physical comedy. Therefore casting Piper, and indeed the rest of the cast required attention to detail, and show creator Jenji Kohan and the rest of the crew have accomplished the task with gusto.
Schilling is a revelation, portraying a woman who gives the impression that she’s well-meaning, yet underneath there’s a scatter-brained narcissistic woman perpetually putting her foot in her mouth. Her fiancé begins the show as understanding and affable, but soon begins to fray at the edges having to deal with a relationship separated by barb wire. And of course Piper’s old flame Alex, ex-international-drug-smuggler. More great casting, as Prepon plays her sassy and hip-to-the-wise character with intelligence and attitude.
This kind of praise can be showered upon practically everyone else in the cast, from Natasha Lyonne’s hilariously deadpan Nicky, to Kate Mulgrew’s tough cook with a heart of gold, ‘Red’. Some cynics would still say it’s still hard to find great female characters on TV, and I’d say to them it’s because they’ve all been crammed into this show!
Piper keeps bouncing from one incident to the next, the tension never lets up. Her first day in prison she offends the cook which is a big mistake as it means she’ll be served used tampons in her sandwiches until she makes things right. The writers are very adept at causing conflict in her life, and over the course of the show Piper is forced to confront what kind of person she really is deep down. She was sent to prison for something she got involved in years ago, believing herself a naive victim. But her time in prison serves as a wake-up call to make her face certain responsibilities, which is continually rammed into her face by Alex, who is much more pragmatic.
As good as the show is, it does have two failings. First off, though the writers are great at creating and sustaining conflict and tension, sometimes it feels contrived and forced, with characters tending to do things which we know is going to cause trouble; they should know better. For the most part I let these character actions pass, but there were moments where it just felt the writers were taking an obvious and easy route to create conflict.
The second failing of the show is its treatment of men. Now, I’m starved of seeing good female roles just as much as the next person, so I love that the show is jam-packed with them, but it’s disappointing to see the show over the course of 13 episodes paint every single male as a douchebag. Perhaps two characters in particular float over those waters, but ultimately sail out, but for the most part the men are painted with such broad strokes, portrayed as such scumbags, they come off as cartoons. It works when the show is being humorous, but ultimately it became hard to take the corrupt correctional officer character of Mendez (Pablo Schreiber) seriously, so any time he showed up I would just roll my eyes at what stupid shit he would get up to. This hampers the show and whatever meaning the conflicts are trying to convey.
Regardless of these flaws, Orange is the New Black is still essential viewing, for bringing us into a new world that we haven’t seen much of. A character quips in the first episode to not expect the prison to be like the classic show Oz. The tone of the series, the characters, and their journeys are compelling material, punctuated by great dialogue and performances. It’s a humorous show, but it’s a prison populated by broken women who made mistakes and are trying their best to survive in the aftermath of their choices. It’s bleak, but here’s hoping next season there’s orange light at the end of the black tunnel!
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