In what will probably come as no surprise to anyone who owns a television or laptop, entertainment created for the small screen is rapidly overtaking cinematic fare in terms of sophistication,originality and, crucially, diversity.
Shows like Mad Men, Transparent, House of Cards, Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, and Breaking Bad have shown that serialised, long form storytelling that breaks the mould in terms of pacing and genre (with many straddling several) are not just viable, but also potentially highly lucrative.
Helping to fuel this explosion in creative experimentation has been the advent of online streaming services; once service providers realised that instead of simply providing customers with existing programming, they could produce their own and entice new subscribers this way (not to mention sell it back to the TV and cable networks, in the sweetest reversal of all) things really started to kick off.
Of the streaming services who have decided to hang out their shingle as a production company, Netflix is arguably the best, and one of their finest offerings is comedy-drama Orange is the New Black.
Inspired by the real life memoir of Piper Kerman, Orange is the New Black tells the (fictional) story of young, upper-middle class white woman Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), who is sentenced to 15 months in Litchfield Peniterary for drug trafficking offences committed during her early twenties.
Cut off from her fiancee Larry (Jason Biggs) at the same time she is reunited with ex-girlfriend and fellow inmate Alex (Laura Prepon), Piper soon finds herself emotionally conflicted, even as she struggles to come to terms with her new environment and its inhabitants, including intimidating head of the kitchen, Red (Kate Mulgrew), wannabe prison-wife Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) and religious zealot Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning).
Worse still, the more Piper starts to assimilate into the prison culture, the more she begins to question who she really is, and whether or not she is the good person she always believed herself to be.
Let me just say at this point that I love this show, and I rarely ever only watch one episode in a single sitting. Despite how heavy the above rundown might make it sound, Orange is the New Black is frequently laugh-out-loud funny thanks to its clever plots and razor sharp dialogue, and it features some of the most well-rounded characters you’ll see anywhere on TV.
Over the course of this season (and the next), showrunner Jenji Kohan and her team of writers have come to rely on a recurring episode structure that balances plot momentum with character development – in addition to the events unfolding at Litchfield in the present, we are are shown flashbacks to the lives of these women before they ended up in the slammer.
By doing this, we’re able to see WHY these people are who they are and where they are, in a manner that rarely exonerates the bad choices that led to their incarceration, but more often than not rationalises the human reasons behind these choices.
Of course, top notch writing is nothing without a cast capable of bringing it to life, and fortunately, Orange is the New Black has one of the best ensemble casts working in TV right now, particularly Schilling, who offers up a pitch-perfect, layered turn in what is essentially (and you’ll forgive the expression) the “straight man” role.
It’s thanks to these nuanced performances that the main theme of the series, identity, is able to work so well, as we watch these women cling to their sense of self in a place specifically designed to rob them of it.
Throughout the first 13 episodes, Kohan and co. ask us to consider the fluidity of identity; not only how it can be lost, but also how it can be discovered. It’s worth pointing out that sexuality plays into this as well (makes sense, really), so if you’re uncomfortable seeing a bit of lesbian lovemaking (or heterosexual humping, for that matter), this really isn’t the show for you.
LOOK OUT! SPOILERS!
The most obvious example of the identity theme at work is without doubt Piper’s character arc throughout Season 1.
When we first meet her, Piper seems like a kind, sweet-natured and harmless person, and it’s hard to imagine how she will possibly survive her jail term. Slowly but surely, however, it becomes apparent to Piper (and to us) that she is a helluva lot tougher than expected, and that she has a some quite serious character flaws too.
These failings include a strong narcissistic streak, a tendency towards manipulative behaviour, and a frankly impressive temper (which culminates in her savage, (seemingly) fatal bashing of Pennsatucky in the closing moments of the finale).
Piper also ends up having to question just what her true feelings (and inclinations) are as things begin to heat up between her and Alex again. She’s still in love with Larry, of course, but could she be in love with Alex too?
All of these internal conflicts around her personality and sexual identity, which themselves represent the struggles experienced on some level by all her fellow inmates, are expressed bluntly by Piper herself during a moment of self-realisation late in Season 1:
“I’m scared that I’m not myself in here, and I’m scared that I am. Other people aren’t the scariest part of prison…it’s coming face-to-face with who you really are.”
It’s not just Piper’s journey of self-discovery that underscores the identity theme, though. No, thanks to the well-realised roster of characters, the audience is constantly asked to look deeper and judge for themselves who these people really are.
Take Red; on the surface, she is fierce and cruel, and a tyrannical figure of power. But as we get to know her, we learn that this is only a part she has come to play to survive, and in reality, she is an intelligent, resilient and surprisingly loving woman who views her friends as her family.
We come to appreciate Red for being practical and cunning, and also for her rare flashes of whimsy, such as when we learn that she is obsessed with capturing a supposedly supernatural chicken sighted on the prison grounds, giving us one of the best quotes of the first season:
“All I wanted was to eat the chicken that was smarter than other chickens and to absorb its power. And to make a nice Kiev.”
And speaking of quotable characters, who is responsible for more memorable lines than Crazy Eyes? And yet, for all of her mostly absurd, sometimes-insightful comments, Crazy Eyes is herself someone who deserves closer scrutiny.
Once we’ve learned that Crazy Eyes is understandably less than thrilled by her prison moniker, preferring her given name Suzanne, we begin to see her as human being with valid thoughts and feelings like any other.
The same goes for every character in Orange is the New Black – just like people in real life, each of them is so much more than what we see on first, second or even thousandth glance.
This isn’t only true for the female characters, either. Early on, we find ourselves siding with prison counsellor Sam Healy over counterpart Joe Caputo, the former seemingly a kindly old man with the inmates’ best interests at heart, and the latter apparently an unpleasant sleaze.
Several episodes down the track, though, and this conception has been flipped on its head. We now see Healy for the petty homophobe he is, and we’re able to look past Caputo’s sketchiness to appreciate his positive qualities as a fair and ethical adminstrator.
As Orange is the New Black makes so abundantly clear, it’s not just someone’s identity that can change, but how others perceive that identity that evolves too.
THE SPOILERS! THEY’RE…THEY’RE GONE!
By this point you might be thinking, “Ok, the show is well written and acted, and it’s got something worthwhile to say about human nature – that’s all wonderful, but what else makes it great?”
Well, the single camera work is top notch and the incidental music supports it nicely. On the subject of music, the opening tune by Regina Spektor is very catchy and thematically appropriate (on the downside, it will stay in your head for days), and it suits the simple yet effective opening credits sequence.
But let’s be honest here: one of the biggest achievements is the amazing level of diversity on display. The cast and their characters represent different ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations and ages, and this combination allows the writers to execute their plots and thematic explorations in less familiar fashion than we’ve seen in a million other “traditional” shows before, making things seem that much fresher.
So, are there any misfires? Well, there’s a pregnancy-related subplot that starts out novel but ends up beginning to drag a bit (this is more a complaint for Season 2, to be fair), and it’s worth saying that things can occasionally veer a little too far from the confines of “comedy-drama” and into slightly silly territory, which hurts the grounded, black comedy tone a bit.
But these are minor quibbles. This is an entertaining and important show that provides a unique look at the lives of very human women who have made some very poor decisions.
Next time you’re looking for something to watch on TV, I’d recommend that those of you who’ve avoided watching the show to a dodge a big mistake of your own, and check out Season 1 of Orange is the New Black – although set aside plenty of time, as you’ll be a captive audience from pretty early on!