(SPOILER – Don’t read if you haven’t seen all of season 1, but you already have, right?)
The chances are that if you haven’t heard of Netflix’s new show Orange Is The New Black, then you’re either: a) a new mother who barely has time to pee, let alone watch shows on the Internet, or b) in prison, where wifi is notoriously patchy. So let me briefly summarise: Orange Is The New Black is a loose adaption of the memoir (of the same name) by Piper Kerman, who was a white thirty-something collage-educated woman when she was sentenced to fifteen months in a federal prison for a decade old drug offence.
Yeah, yeah whatever, right?
I’ll be honest, the idea of an Internet show set in a women’s prison didn’t exactly inspire cartwheels from me either, but stumbling across this trailer a few weeks before the show dropped piqued my interest:
WHOA LOOK MOM, NORMAL PEOPLE!
The first thing that struck me about the trailer was just the sheer amount of cast members. Every new cut seems to yield a new face. And not just any old face, but a normal face. Not a sandblasted blank wall, but a genuine lived in face, one that’s taken a few knocks and scrapes and survived to tell a cracking tale. Actually, this is the first ‘TV’ show I can ever recall watching where I’ve thought, ‘shit, she looks like crap in this scene!’ I never felt that while watching Lost. The actors in that show always looked immaculately well-groomed for people who’d not only just survived a plane crash, but a marauding polar bear, and that ridiculous non-sensical black smoke thing.
Much has been made of the casts diversity, but I think Orange Is The New Black is more than just throwing a bunch of different coloured paints at the wall and seeing which sticks. For me, it’s about the pictures the creators, writers and actors are attempting to ‘swirl’ within that paint. There seems to be a concerted effort to reach for the stars in the pursuit of something new and different, and quite possibly a smidgen more genuine than the well-worn path we’re familiar with. It is brilliantly refreshing to watch women (in the 21st century no less) having discussions between one another that don’t revolve around either shopping for shoes or how to snag/get over a man. Thank fuck!
NICE BLONDE LADY
Of course, the trailer also prominently features the show’s main protagonist Piper Chapman (Taylor Shilling), who plays an approximation of Piper Kerman (the change of surname will prove to be an important distinction between the two as the first season progresses). At first glance, Piper Chapman seems to be much like any nice blonde lady in any American TV show you can shake a stick at, with her most pressing concerns prior to entering prison seeming to amount to who’s going to update her blog and missing out on the latest generation of the iphone. And to be honest, you’re kind of hoping she gets her arse kicked, because early season Piper is a self-centred train wreck, lurching perilously about the tracks before occasionally derailing altogether and wiping out a small town populated by her family and friends. She doesn’t get all that much better at not putting her feet in her mouth as the season progresses, but she does at least finally have to start dealing with the stream of shit she’s been haemorrhaging her whole life. Ultimately it is this fact that finally got me rooting for Piper: she makes mistakes, a lot of mistakes, but hell don’t we all? (Okay, I still haven’t forgiven her for leaving Alex right after her mother died: that was pretty shitty Piper!) But by the time Pennsatucky shows up with her sharpened crucifix, you’re willing Chapman to finally grow a pair, and when she does, it’s pretty fucking satisfying!
The real-life Piper seems to be unbelievably relaxed with the transformation of her prison experience into a comedy-drama show. (I refuse to use the term dramedy, it’s just plain ugly.) Seriously, think for a moment how you’d feel if your biggest ever life fuck up was streaming on Netflix? Awkward!
Part of the reason for Kerman’s mellow sensibility, is, perhaps, that the show, while not mirroring every event, character or their traits from her memoir absolutely accurately, does at least keep the over-arching concept of the book intact: that within each prison jumpsuit is a real person who made some crappy life choices.
For the most part, the characters in Orange Is The New Black feel real. Mainly because no one is merely all good or all bad. (Even Pornstache) There are varying shades to the characters, as is the case with people in real life. Even the protagonist (often the most boring role of any TV show as they serve as a fulcrum) bends and changes, actually more like loses her mind. The Piper at the end of season one is a very different beast to that who started the show thirteen episodes earlier. Whether or not you like her more or less will, perhaps, depend upon your own life experiences. Personally, I think it’s great to see the tradition turned on its head a little. And it’s always nice to see a juicy anti-hero. (I know I shouldn’t be cheering someone getting their head smashed in, but fuck yeah! Smack the bitch, Piper!)
OH, I GET IT
You may be questioning just how ground-breaking a show is that still relies heavily on white, eye-friendly leads; however, it becomes clear from episode three onwards that Piper’s story is being used as a conduit for telling other stories that are less familiar and decidedly more disturbing.
There’s no doubt Chapman starts out fairly contented in her privileged white-bred world. There’s a half-arsed attempt at rebellion in her twenties, but when the shit starts to hit the fan with her girlfriend Alex’s international drug cartel, Piper bolts back to her safe, cozy life. Unfortunately for her, the shit splatters also follow. Chances are high though, that Piper will probably be okay as she has what most people in prison don’t have: a good support network. And more importantly: friends in ‘high’ places, as is evidenced when she lands herself in SHU. It’s not long before Larry’s on the phone kicking up a shit stink that, as far as prison honcho Caputo’s concerned, could potentially lead all the way to the White House. Needless to say, she’s safely back in her cube within forty-eight hours. Shame about the other women in SHU, eh?
WAIT, WHO THE HELL ARE THEY?!
Looking beyond Piper’s story, we see Orange Is The New Black evolve into (dare I say it) an issues show. I don’t write this as a slight, in fact, the very opposite. These episodes aren’t like, ‘Tonight, on a very special episode of Blossom’. They don’t feel shoe-horned in. Prison is the place where all the problems in society come home to roost, so it’s not a massive surprise to find characters who have mental health issues, drug addictions or family problems. It might be the witty one-liners that get the most attention, but what I find most affecting is the under current of sadness that Orange Is The New Black delicately rests upon:
Taystee (Danielle Brooks) is the very first prisoner we meet: bullying Piper out of her lukewarm shower and complementing her TV titties, all the while looking slightly deranged and menacing with her mad hair. Give her a little time though, and we come to see that Taystee is one of the warmest, funnest and cleverest prisoners in the whole of Litchfield. However, she’s got a record and zero support on the outside, so it’s no surprise whatsoever to see her back at Litchfield not long after making parole. Taystee knows how to manage on the inside; she has a purpose, a place in the world, she’s needed and, rather sadly, she knows she always has a bed in prison, something she couldn’t rely on outside its walls.
The infamous pie-thrower of Litchefield! Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) starts out the show nuttier than a fruit cake, quickly bagging an obviously reluctant new-fish Piper as her ‘wife’. When Pipes finally plucks up the courage to let Suzanne down gently, she seems to take it all in good grace, but it’s not long before Crazy Eyes is living up to her handle and emptying her bladder all over the floor of Piper and Miss Claudette’s cube. (Ace scene) But much like Taystee, there’s hidden depths to Suzanne, she’s trying desperately to deal with her own head space, but it can’t have been easy making those frequent trips to the prison’s psych unit. As we see when Pennsatucky winds up there, the psych unit is not a pleasant place: treatment seems to mostly consist of strapping you down and pumping you full of meds until you give up ‘pretending’ to be normal.
A lot of the characters in Orange Is The New Black have had a run in with drugs: Piper, Alex, Nicky, Daya and her mother, Pennsatucky and her meth-head, stained-teeth friends, Pornstache, even Yoga Jones grew pot (although, that wasn’t a huge surprise, she is very laid-back). But no one’s story is quite as unrelentingly tragic as Tricia’s. Here’s a girl whose backstory shows us nothing but sadness as her street life spirals further and further out of her control. Even in prison, thanks to Pornstache, her future is doomed. Red tries to help her, like she did Nicky, but the tough love approach doesn’t suit everybody and Red’s rejection ultimately leads to her biggest downfall. I willed Tricia on, but really what chance did she have? And what’s to say she’ll be the only character to meet her end this way. Remember that chat between Alex and Nicky in the shower block about how she misses using? (Worrying)
Orange Is The New Black deals in stereotypes: reinforcing them, refining them and redefining them. It faces the politically correct corner we’ve backed ourselves into and brilliantly gives it the finger. Nicky’s wise-crack to Piper about imagining that prison is like the 1950s is spot on, as well as the many dicey references to chicken, which left me in bits, but hey, it’s prison, right? It would be weird if everyone was nice to each other all the time.
Ultimately, the biggest stereotype Orange Is The New Black confronts is that of the perception of women: what they look like, how they speak, what they wear, how they act, and what they talk about. The supreme irony of Orange Is The New Black is, perhaps, that it has taken a show set in prison to finally free women (albeit temporarily) from the constraints laid upon them by a patriarchy society.
If you’re a fan of life and all its many complexities, then I implore you to give Orange Is The New Black a nudge. You won’t regret it, especially if you’re a woman.