Reviews

'Orange is the New Black' Eases Us All Into Prison Life

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.


Orange is the New Black: Season One

Distributor: Lionsgate
Cast: Taylor Schilling, Laura Prepon, Natasha Lyonne, Michelle Hurst, Kate Mulgrew, Jason Biggs, Danielle Brooks, Uzo Aduba, Laverne Cox, Samira Wiley, Dascha Polanco, Pablo Schrieber, Michael J. Harney, Taryn Manning, Matt McGorry, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Yael Stone, Beth Fowler
Release date: 2014-05-13
Amazon

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.

8

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image