Orange is the New Black (series 1)

When I asked friends which Netflix series I should watch next, there were several endorsements for Orange is the New Black.  At first sight it looks a little too obvious – a drama set in a women’s prison (nudge-nudge), adapted from the story of an educated and affluent bisexual (wink wink) woman who has previously fallen in love with another woman who runs drugs for a cartel – and (surprise surprise) rats on her lover such that they find themselves some years later in the same prison at the same time.  Oh, and just to add spice to the mix, the leading character is now engaged to be married… to a man.

The potential for clichés is not overridden by the pilot episode, which includes plenty of topless nudity and lesbian (and straight) sex (whorrrr!) to justify the 18 certificate afforded the series (not to mention drugs, violence, intimidation and other behaviours that some might find disturbing, but the fact is that while the lesbian content is unquestionably true to life so is the representation of the sort of things you might find happening anywhere (right down to the “trailer trash meth-head” types.)

The real story here is a gritty and occasionally emotional tragicomic drama, featuring a sassy script and well-drawn characters played with verve by a diverse cast.  You wish that selling sex was not necessary to hook an audience, but that appears to be the way of the world.

The origins of the series are based on a book of the same name written by Piper Kerman, whose given name and me-too appearance is shared by the leading protagonist, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), who has some difficulty coming to terms with her new environment, but pulls it off rather quicker than you might expect – even allowing for the compressed nature of a TV series – which is not to say she doesn’t have many traumas and dilemmas along the way.

Partly you can thank the community of women, forced by circumstances to live and work together, to deal with issues impacting people everywhere, and in some case to gain small victories over the prison authorities – the things that make life worth living.  The staff have enough problems of their own, not least for fraternising with inmates, but perhaps this demonstrates that at times you wonder who should be the guards and who the prisoners.

Some characters and situations are apparently borrowed from the book, and Kerman remains an advisor to the series, but for the most part this is a fictionalised rendition, written with sympathy.  You suppose the series creator Jenji Kohan and team of writers must have spent some while soaking up the atmosphere in a real women’s prison somewhere along the way,

Whatever it is, the formula evidently works since the series seems to be pushing the buttons of the critics.  From Wikipedia:

Orange Is the New Black has received universal acclaim. For Season 1, Metacritic gave it a score of 79/100 based on reviews from 32 critics, indicating favorable reviews. Rotten Tomatoes gives a score of 93%, with an average rating of 8.2/10 based on 40 reviews. The site’s consensus is “Orange Is the New Black is a sharp mix of black humor and dramatic heft, with interesting characters and an intriguing flashback structure.”

Hank Stuever, television critic for The Washington Post, gave Orange Is the New Black a perfect score. In his review of the series, he stated: “In Jenji Kohan’s magnificent and thoroughly engrossing new series, Orange Is the New Black, prison is still the pits. But it is also filled with the entire range of human emotion and stories, all of which are brought vividly to life in a world where a stick of gum could ignite either a romance or a death threat.” Maureen Ryan, of The Huffington Post, wrote: “Orange is one of the best new programs of the year, and the six episodes I’ve seen have left me hungry to see more.”

The second season of the show was also received with critical acclaim. Rotten Tomatoes gives a score of 97%, with an average rating of 9.1/10 based on 35 reviews. Metacritic gave the second season a score of 89 out of 100 based on 30 critics, indicating “universal acclaim”. David Wiegland of the San Francisco Chronicle gave the season a positive review, calling the first six episodes “not only as great as the first season, but arguably better.”

Perhaps the point is that the stories, characters and situations all ring true.  All are credible and develop over time, avoiding the trap that used to be common in such series, whereby some characters are cardboard cutouts, there just for effect – and contrary to what you might expect, they break stereotypes.  An American friend tells me they have the culture of each nailed on – from the Afro-Americans to the religious nutcases, the Hispanics and the white liberals alike.

The inmates are each given a back-story, told in snatches but which helps us build up a 3D image for each, sometimes explaining the psychology of their coping mechanisms and reactions.  Each has their strengths and their weaknesses; in their own way, each is vulnerable and only too conscious of where their behaviours and history have landed them.

For example, when you learn that the head cook, Galina “Red” Reznikov (Irish-American actress Kate Mulgrew) ran a cafe with her husband, at which members of the local Russian mafia came to eat and talk, it becomes far easier to understand how she rules her domain within the prison with a rod of iron, nurturing girls to work for her, demanding loyalty and applying strict rules on who she accepts.  Piper falls foul of Red early on, having inadvertently trashed her cooking, but later on they grow a grudging mutual respect, and in the process we learn that Red is very human, has her own emotional dilemmas and is not frightened to face up to the warders, notably the vile George “Pornstache” Mendez.

That is but one character.  Each takes their turn in the spotlight, from the eloquent Shakespeare-quoting “psych” Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren – who wants Piper to be her “wife” but later tells in vivid detail what it’s like to be treated as insane within the prison, and who turns out to be a very decent person at heart), via the prim Miss Claudette Pelage (Michelle Hurst) to reborn hands-on preacher and psychotic meth-head Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett (Taryn Manning) – whose actions lead to the climax of the season 1 finale.  Not one is so ludicrous or underwritten that you could not imagine them in real life, warts and all.

Some leave, and when they do there is more than a little regret in their parting.  A few are carried out in body bags, at least one for reasons other than those communicated officially, but while the names may change the community lives.  There is very real drama here, engagingly told and eminently watchable throughout.

But the central theme remains the life of Piper and her eternal triangle, torn between her love-hate relationship with Alex (Laura Prepon) – with whom she is forcibly incarcerated – and the fiancé from whom she is forcibly separated, decent Jewish guy Larry Bloom (Jason Biggs) – which will doubtless remain the narrative through second, third and fourth series.

The downside is that, like many of the best series (and here I’m talking Breaking Bad, House of Cards, House, The Sopranos, Dexter and a few more), OITNB rapidly becomes addictive as heroin, but thankfully without the side-effects.  Go see and expect to binge-watch!

PS. I’m told reliably that this type of prison is known as “Club Fed” and that the show is based upon the women’s federal penitentiary in Danbury (not the Danbury near Chelmsford, Essex!), which is often referred to as “Camp Cupcake.”

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