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orange is the new black

What a nice surprise this show turned out to be. The basic concept (middle-class white woman goes to jail) was easily described in those combo-terms people joke about (“a cross of Oz and The L Word was pretty commonly mentioned). But almost everything that could go right does in Orange Is the New Black, the first Netflix series that I had to binge-watch (at least by my standards … I don’t usually do binges). House of Cards has the famous names, but it’s been on Netflix forever, and I still have nine episodes to go. I finished Orange pretty quickly.

While there is a central character at the core of Orange (Taylor Schilling as Piper), showrunner Jenji Kohan takes full advantage of the large diverse population in the prison. As with Oz, we gradually learn how the various women ended up in jail, with different characters featured in each episode. This background filler gives depth to the characters, and a bunch of wonderful (and, to me at least, largely unknown) actresses make each character their own. Most of them have a visual cue that lets us know who these women are, but as we get to know them, we learn that the visual cues aren’t telling the whole story. A personal favorite of mine, Natasha Lyonne, is her usual wonderful self, and Laura Prepon, one of the better-known cast members from her eight years on That 70’s Show, brings a perfect blend of self-assurance and vulnerability. (She also uses her 5’10” height effectively … one fellow inmate calls her Sasquatch, and it’s true that Prepon’s Alex Vause usually seems to take up a lot of space … Taylor Schilling is only two inches shorter, yet she seems tiny next to Prepon.) There’s also Kate Mulgrew for the Star Trek fans, playing a red-headed Russian immigrant, and Lyonne’s American Pie buddy Jason Biggs as Piper’s boyfriend.

Orange Is the New Black doesn’t just cast for diversity, it treats diversity with a fair amount of honesty. It generally avoids the kind of anvilicious self-congratulation that ruins so many similar attempts at diversity. The lesbians are lesbians, an accepted part of the prison community. There’s a transgender woman (played by a transgender actress/activist), and a bull dyke (played by the multi-talented dyke, Lea DeLaria) who somehow manages to both fit the stereotype and break it down to show the person behind the façade. The show accepts the reality of the tribal nature of the prison community … when an advisory council is formed, the coalition is made up of one person each from groups like whites, black, Latinas, lesbians, “golden girls”, and “others”. That the council is toothless makes an interesting point, but what I liked more was the way everyone understood that the coalition would be chosen by “groups”. In the beginning of the series, we’re told that people stick to their own, but over the course of the season, we see plenty of examples of people crossing those lines. When this happened on Oz, it was usually part of political maneuvering, but with Orange, you see some genuine affection when people cross over the barriers.

It’s also nice that Piper isn’t a particularly nice person. It is true that the anti-hero is at the center of much great TV these days, but they are usually men. And it would be easy to just coast on the concept of the clueless white girl stumbling blindly but charmingly through her jail sentence. But it doesn’t play that way. Piper hurts people because she is too self-absorbed to appreciate that she is affecting others, and since we are attached to many of the characters, we are hurt as well by Piper’s insensitivity. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, and Taylor Schilling has a lot to do with how successful it is so far.

Jenji Kohan previously gave us Weeds, which was very good for three seasons. Unfortunately, it was on for eight seasons. Perhaps that suggests that Orange Is the New Black will have a short shelf life. But three seasons as good as this first one would be just fine with me. Grade for Season One: A-.

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