‘Orange is the New Black’ Eases Us All Into Prison Life

[12 May 2014]

By J.M. Suarez

Above: Pulibicity photo (partial) by © Jill Greenberg.


Netflix’s excellent Orange is the New Black is an amazing success story, and for good reason. Based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, the series follows Piper’s (Taylor Schilling) stint in jail surrounded by her fellow female prisoners. They’re a motley group of diverse women whose crimes, and reasons for committing them, are as varied as the women themselves.

The series is written and directed by former Weeds creator, Jenji Kohan. While the two shows share a sardonic sensibility and women at the center, Orange is the New Black is able to more successfully balance nuance and the heightened reality of prison life in a way that creates a whole other world than what is usually offered on television.

Piper is an excellent introduction to the prison world because she is so clearly removed from any kind of criminality in her present life. She’s been sentenced for helping her ex-girlfriend, Alex (Laura Prepon) smuggle drugs almost ten years earlier. Though she was young and blinded by love, Piper still chose to commit a crime, and now she’s leaving behind a comfortable life with a fiancé, Larry (Jason Biggs) and a burgeoning business with her best friend, Polly (Maria Dizzia). The initial fish-out-of-water component to the series serves as a way to identify with Piper and ease viewers into the prison world.

However, Orange is the New Black is just as much about the women Piper encounters in prison, as it is her own story. Much like Lost, the series devotes individual episodes to individual characters, offering up backstories about their pre-prison lives, as well as what made them commit a crime in the first place. It treats each of the women as integral to the overall story, not just supporting characters in Piper’s. It’s this distinction that is undoubtedly the series’ greatest strength and why it’s managed to attract such a large viewership.

A character like Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst), equal parts mysterious and fastidious, is a perfect example of the layered characterizations and performances that are commonplace on the series. Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), a funny and unapologetically crass ex-junkie is just as heartbreaking as she is hilarious. Red’s (Kate Mulgrew) backstory offers one of the most relatable moments in the entire series despite her tough, unforgiving prison persona. Taystee (Danielle Brooks) may be a silly joker half of the time, but her friendship with fellow inmate Poussey (Samira Wiley) is also beautifully portrayed throughout the series. Even the aptly named Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) is more than just the prison weirdo and she has one of the most moving moments of the season.

Piper’s own experience in prison is dramatically altered when Alex is also sentenced to serve time in the same prison. Their shared past is complicated and made more so by Piper’s anger and suspicion over Alex’s betrayal and Larry’s jealousy. While Piper is often afraid and deferential, when she’s not accidentally breaking prison protocol, Alex is the exact opposite. She’s fearless and intimidating and naturally strikes up a friendship with Nicky. They’re both streetwise where Piper is sheltered and it’s in highlighting these differences in prison, that their eventual backstories have even more impact.

Perhaps no other character’s backstory is as singular and compelling as Sophia’s (Laverne Cox). Both Cox and Sophia are transgender, and her role is as defining for its groundbreaking visibility as it is for its ensemble inclusion. Sophia, being transgender, never serves as a cheap ploy for drama or laughs. Rather, she’s as thoughtfully written and portrayed as the rest of the women in the series. Her character’s story is just another one in the larger Orange is the New Black story. 

Apart from the inmates and Piper’s family, the other main characters are part of the prison staff, particularly Healy (Michael J. Harney), Mendez (Pablo Schreiber), also known as “Pornstache”, and Bennett (Matt McGorry). Though they’re in charge and wield a great deal of power, their interactions with the prisoners are often an exercise in manipulation and therefore, less straightforward than their positions would suggest. These exchanges illuminate the blurred morality and humanity that exists between guards and prisoners.

It would be too unwieldy to single out every character and their storyline here, but it should be noted that there isn’t a weak one in the bunch. Regardless of their backgrounds, these women are all in the same place, and though prison may have its own hierarchies and social rules, they’re not always that different from the outside world. Learning to adapt and even thrive in prison comes easier to some than to others, and Orange is the New Black excels in showing the small differences that can exist within such a limited environment.

The women represented in prison are as diverse as those outside of prison, yet for some reason Orange is the New Black has succeeded in showing this diversity where other shows have failed. Differences of class, race, religion, sexuality, and gender are all depicted with humor and genuine emotion. The series balances Piper’s ridiculous fascination and naiveté with sincere moments of disappointment and sadness. These are women who are rarely given a voice in television so when a series like Orange is the New Black comes along it’s striking in its depiction.

Season 1 ends with a cliffhanger that leaves viewers hanging on the hook, so to speak. When Season 2 airs 6 June, we’ll be there, ready and willing to go back to the inside.

The Blu-ray release includes several special features unavailable anywhere else, such as audio commentaries and several featurettes on specific characters and prison life, with input from cast, crew and Kerman; as well as a gag reel. All the bonus material is great, but the commentaries are excellent. They’re candid and revealing and highlight the camaraderie behind the scenes.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/181721-orange-is-the-new-black-season-one-blu-ray/