Streaming Originals: “Orange is the New Black” on Netflix

THE SPECS:

Who: The show is available to Netflix subscribers exclusively, as it is Netflix produced original content.

What: “Orange is the New Black,” a comedy drama about a Manhattan woman whose past catches up to her and for which she must serve time in federal prison.

When: All 13 first season episodes became available for viewing on July 11, 2013.

Where: The show is set in New York, though flashbacks for each of the prisoners who comprise the cast of characters sometimes venture away from New York.

Why: I saw the teaser trailers for the series while watching other programming on Netflix and also on network TV.  I was originally drawn in by the fact that Kate Mulgrew, best known as Captain Kathryn Janeway from “Star Trek: Voyager,” plays a Russian prisoner and the “mama” of the motley cast of inmates.  I later discovered that Laura Prepon, aka Donna from “That ’70s Show,” is also a featured regular.

How – as in How Was It?  I rated the show four out of five stars, mainly because it is not the type of show to which I normally gravitate.  There are graphic situations, and the main character is potentially annoying in some circumstances.  Also, I’m not an overall fan of Jason Biggs, but, as you will read below, the show is so well-written, I still liked it very much.

SYNOPSIS

Taylor Schilling plays Piper Chapman, a seemingly run-of-the-mill woman and maker of homemade soaps who just became engaged to be married to Larry Bloom (Jason Biggs), her unemployed but wholly supportive writer boyfriend. Unfortunately, Piper learns that she must serve a short sentence in federal prison after she is implicated in the bust of an international drug cartel, of which her former girlfriend, Alex Vause (Prepon), was a member and who Piper aided and abetted.  Piper’s wild and adventurous past, including her ambiguous sexual orientation, becomes a secret revealed not only to Larry and his family but to her family as well.

What’s more, Piper finds, at first, that she is wholly unequipped for prison. Though some, like unabashed, self-proclaimed “lesbian junkie” Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne), are kind and helpful to her, others, like kitchen head Red (Mulgrew), show her no mercy, particularly after Piper accidentally criticizes the cooking.  In addition, the guards, all men, are mostly drunk on their own power (one nicknamed “Pornstache” is arguably misogynistic), the prison counselors play favorites and are easily offended, and the prison population is divided by race, unofficially but automatically, which offends Piper’s liberal sensibilities.  If all that weren’t complicated enough, Piper’s ex Alex is sent to the same prison, and Piper’s emotions are deeply conflicted, as she reasons that only Alex could have pointed the finger to get her in trouble in the first place, while at the same, the old attractions between the two women remain undeniably present.  In the meantime, Larry attempts to make the best of his temporary separation from Piper, though he is less than comfortable with the news that Piper and Alex are doing time together.

THOUGHTS

Orange is the New Black is a piercingly well-written show that is, in some ways, wholly unexpected in how riveting it actually is.  Created by the creator of Weeds, Jenji Kohan, this program is compellingly balanced in its storytelling, providing a richness of background and range of emotions for each character, even those expected to be the villains.  In truth, all of the characters, including Piper, are deeply flawed.  The show does not demand that the viewer sympathize with any one of the characters because they are prisoners or are employed within the state correctional system or are relatives or loved ones of either inmate or employee; the viewer is asked to see the characters as humans who have made human mistakes, some more terrible than others, whether they are serving time for these mistakes or not.  The show also carefully examines potential treatment that women inmates receive, particularly at the hands of male guards and authority figures, without suggesting that the whole system is broken (considering that a key power-holding figure in this story is also a woman).

Perhaps the most surprising element of this program is how deftly women of all types and categories are portrayed, with equal parts sensitivity and fairness. Piper is, of course, most likely bisexual but is not chastised for that reason; instead, she is examined as an individual who must confront the carefree and careless nature of her youth and its consequences on her present.  There is a transgender man to woman character named Sophia; her prison stay and the reason she is in prison is never fully flushed out or is at best hinted at, but what is certain is that her journey is depicted with unparalleled sensitivity to the struggles of transgender persons in general.  The show is also unafraid to tackle issues of gay versus straight, both in rights and in sexual relations; butch versus femme; black versus white; and the community constructs that are created to add routine and comfort in a decidedly non-routine and uncomfortable situation.

What’s more, each of the jailed women is provided segments of back story, compelling the viewer to watch to find out more, if only to deepen the overall understanding of each character and how she ended up in prison initially.  In some ways, Piper may be the least sympathetic of the imprisoned characters (in fact, internet commentary is predominantly against her) because her WASP-ish, well-to-do upbringing sets her apart from most of the other inmates and also makes her choices seem rebellious and even selfish at their core. And yet, in some ways – and as she comes to discover – Piper is no different than many of her fellow cons; her life and background, as well as her significant others’ inherent need to coddle her and to protect her in their similar but individualistic devoted manners, have not equipped her for the rougher edges of life, particularly federal prison.

The entire program is well performed by the ensemble cast.  Most often, the situations are played for laughs, but “Orange is the New Black” is not short of drama.  Every cast member is impressive to varying degrees but probably none more so than Mulgrew, who effects a convincing Russian accent and portrays a woman fixated, almost to a flaw, to a deep set of principles such that the viewer can’t help but wonder what may have compromised them to the point that she ended up in prison to begin with.  Schilling, as the lead character, also walks a fine line of love-her-or-hate-her bewilderment.  Piper is as sympathetic as she is frustrating, a trait wholly attained through Schilling’s nuanced performance of a woman struggling to find her place and identity in prison as much as she has done so in life.  Each of the actresses and actors offer well-rounded portrayals, though some are weaker than others, particularly Piper’s friend and business partner and “Pennsatuckey,” the Bible-toting, self-ascribed healer.

All of the supporting characters are interesting and compelling.  Also, the show has its fair share of steamy sex scenes, between various genders, which leave very little to the imagination.  This is both a caution to those offended by such depictions as it is a note to those who revel in them.

Where the show is at its finest, ultimately, though, is how deftly it tells each woman’s story, sometimes to heartbreaking effect. One of the women, Taystee, is released only to purposely violate her parole and find her way back to prison, after she finds that her release and her reentry into society is unsupported by the state, and when she finds that she has no one on the outside to help her reintegrate.  The key villain of the back seven episodes, Pennsatuckey, is the stereotypical “trailer trash” woman who sought five abortions, murdered an abortion nurse who offended her by suggesting that she get a “buy one, get the fifth free card,” only to be held up by the Christian right as a martyr for the Pro-Life movement because she kills a pro-abortion staff person.  Each woman’s story is filled with tragedy, irony, and heart; yet, again, the show is not seeking sympathy for any of the inmates, including Piper.  In the end, the story serves to remind the viewer that each character is human – and to err is ultimately human, even if the error warrants severe punishment.

“Orange is the New Black” is refreshingly enticing and pioneering programming that demands binge watching from beginning to end, which, thankfully, is aided by Netflix’s unique and novel way of introducing its original content.  For the first time, almost the entire ensemble cast, and certainly the primary heroines and victims, are female.  Not for the first time in general but, perhaps, for the first time without apology, the show explores issues of race, sexual orientation and identity, and issues that affect society as a whole but also each of us as individual members.  In fact, the reason that the show may be so compelling is that there is a character to be identified with for every viewer, some more so than others.  In any event, “Orange is the New Black” is the must-watch program of the summer and is worth a month’s worth of Netflix streaming to watch it.

RECOMMENDATION

This show is highly recommended in general but especially to anyone who is not offended by an unapologetic and no-holds-barred take on prison life and the issues that face a prison of all one gender.  It’s also recommended to Netflix subscribers, who have the only legal means to see it.  The show is gritty, graphic, contains strong language, some violence, nudity, and graphic sexual scenes.  It would probably be rated “MA” for “Mature Audiences” on network television or “R” in the movie theaters.

THE FUTURE OF THE SHOW:

Netflix has ordered a second season, tentatively planned for release in Spring 2014.

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