There is a lot to like about this new Netflix original series. Based on the memoir of Piper Kerman, the show tells the story of an affluent diet-conscious yuppie with dreams of creating her own line of scented candles who instead takes a year long detour in a women’s prison, serving time for assisting her former heroin trafficker girlfriend a decade previous. That sentence has to read as bizarrely as it felt to type but somehow, with pitch perfect casting and a wry sense of humor, Orange Is The New Black succeeds at being an absurd, funny, heart-wrenching, and compulsively watchable show. It also effectively explores a some important subjects in a unique forum: female empowerment, gender roles, and the lifestyles of the LGBT community and, ultimately, Piper’s own maturity and sense of responsibility (which she achieves to varying degrees of success).
The lynchpin of the show is the performance of Taylor Shilling as Piper Chapman, a naive yet endearing young woman struggling to adapt to a new environment. She plays the airhead so believably it’s hard to imagine she’ll actually survive longer than a month but the transformation that takes place is both believable and very satisfying. It takes her and the audience a few episodes to figure out who the good guys are and with one exception (kind of) none of the good guys are actually guys at all. In fact, the male prison guards all have one vile characteristic or another while sharing one universal one: an unerring belief that they know what’s best for these women. The enforcement of this belief is usually the main source of hardship in one form or another and this is what makes this story about a women’s prison so compelling. When left on their own these female characters whether heterosexual, homosexual, transgender, elderly, or borderline crazy work really hard to create a sense of family and community. Racial factors unavoidably play a big factor but on the whole the relationships portrayed are sisterly, motherly, or genuinely romantic before anything else.
While the prison environment seems hostile and surreal at first, Piper and the audience steadily become more comfortable with the oddities; the capacity for the human spirit to adapt to the strangest circumstances has always been a fascinating subject to me. It’s amazing how in the worst conditions after enough time a kind of equilibrium is reached and all of a sudden it doesn’t seem weird at all for a person to create a makeshift air filtering mask out of a maxi pad and a few rubber bands. With the flu going around and no alternatives, it’s actually pretty clever. And this is true of any stressful or oppressive situation, at a certain point ego and pretension become meaningless baggage in the grand scheme. When a large group of people are crammed together in a difficult environment, be it prison, boot camp, or even an awful job, a natural social hierarchy somehow assembles itself from the chaos. Like a pocket full of pennies, people trend towards order, towards neat even stacks.
In this particular hypothetical pocket, a pretty young white girl serving time for a non-violent offense is a wad of chewing gum just waiting to come unraveled. This might just be my experience, but I’ve noticed that the first friends I make at a new job or in a new place are never the ones I keep in the long run. Piper has a similar experience with both amusing and tragic results. I have to say this about Susanna (Crazy Eyes, she’s hard to miss), this woman, the character and the actress, are brilliant. She is somehow both unbalanced and distressing and damn hilarious all at the same time. She occupies the atmosphere around her, inspiring the sense that I want to pay attention to everything she does along with a great feeling of relief that she isn’t talking to me. She also has one moment that broke my heart in two because of something else this show does very well, at least in my opinion and that is portraying sympathetic homosexual characters with dignity.
The portrayal of gay women in film and television is generally more accepted (and to certain degrees glamorized) than gay men for some obvious and regrettable reasons. The hypersexualization and objectification of the female body is basically the accepted norm in modern media and as a result the lipstick lesbian earns a free pass for being palatable (using that word makes me feel dirty) to mainstream audiences but the reality of the LGBT community is fewer hour glass figures and more crew cuts. To the credit of OitNB, there a few butch lesbian characters accounted for, they are relevant to the story and interesting without being portrayed as monsters for our pretty characters to fear. But to be completely honest, the show does trend towards pretty attractive actresses, all things considered. Such is television, although they may have overreached with Laura Prepon. I never had a thing for her back on That 70s Show but if someone out there does, your ship has come in. I’m also aware that Natasha Lyonne has had some substance abuse and health problems, so good for her that she’s working in a role that is extraordinarily appropriate for her. That being said, she looks like her face was manufactured in a Jim Henson workshop. My point is, the lesbian relationships that develop are treated with dignity and substance, if a little bit melodramatically (but what’s a relationship without melodrama?). The relationship I have the hardest time understanding or relating to is between Piper and Jason Bigg’s character….Steve something….Larry? Larry.
Maybe it’s because I have a hard time picturing Biggs as a romantic…anything, but it is their struggles to maintain a normal functioning engagement that seems the least convincing or entertaining aspect of the show. It’s not clear who, if anyone, I’m supposed to be rooting for and without spoiling too much, towards the latter half of the season, it seems like Piper is having the same problem. I was surprised to find myself irritated when the show followed Larry outside the prison. At first I thought it was because he’s so dull and unlikable that I’d rather be back in the hoosegow (my favorite new word) with the ladies but after another episode or two, I realized it’s because it was comforting inside those walls. I wanted to keep up with the women and find out more about their stories.
I’m glad this show has already been picked up for a second season, I’m on board with it one hundred percent. I wasn’t sure if I’d find it accessible, considering how far I am from what I suspect the target demographic is but the appeal is absolutely there. Captain Janeway with a Russian accent? Awesome. Strong, compelling transgender character portrayed by transgender activist Laverne Cox? I learned so much! Mythical feral chicken adventures symbolically representing the illusion of confinement and the freedom of the human spirit? You had me at ‘feral’.
Now someone show me how to make wine in a toilet, please.