Sometimes, it takes a very special show to make you realise what you’re missing in your life. Before watching Orange is the New Black, I had no idea that what I was really looking for in terms of entertainment was a thoroughly engrossing, deeply human, and incredibly genuine portrayal of female characters. I can’t think of any other show that I’ve watched that was anywhere near this good in terms of both high quality entertainment value and thoughtful, provoking and empathetic characters. Orange is the New Black is described as a comedy-drama but I think it’s more accurate to say it’s a character-piece; exploring the lives of various prison inmates through the beady, naïve eyes of WASPy Piper Chapman, Orange manages to be both hilarious yet often, deeply poignant. It’s a masterful series which often plays on conventional prison stereotypes but in a fresh and often exciting way. I cannot hype this series enough so I’m going to try and avoid major spoilers, but I will mention tidbits from the show to give you a flavour of it.
Set in Litchfield Federal Correctional Facility, we follow our lead character Piper from the point at which her life takes a sharp turn for the worst. Piper is educated, affluent and privileged, but also a very sympathetic and endearing character. Before handing herself in, Piper and her best friend Polly were set to launch a line of artisanal bath products into Barney’s. She is currently in a very normal relationship with an aspiring writer called Larry. Unfortunately, events from the past catch up with her and it transpires that Piper used to have a lesbian relationship with someone who worked for an international drug cartel. In a moment of unbridled young lust, Piper agreed to carry a suitcase full of drug money with her on an international flight. 10 years later, Piper Chapman is named as an accomplice in the drug trial and faces a 15 month prison sentence.
At first, things don’t seem too bad. Piper enthuses to Larry about how she’s going to get so ripped in prison and how she’ll spend the time constructively. Larry proposes to her, promising to get married once Piper’s out. As Piper prepares to self-surrender, she begs her now fiancé to not watch Mad Men without her. All in all, Piper Chapman is not at all prepared for life in prison.
“Women fight with gossip and words” she is warned upon her arrival. And really, that could summarise the show. But don’t mistake this for a Desperate Housewives gossip show: in prison, gossip and words can have much greater consequences. For example, one of the first missteps that Chapman (for people in prison either go by unflattering nicknames or their surnames) makes is insulting the prison cook, a boisterous Russian redhead who goes by the name ‘Red’ and takes great pride in her work. This leads to Chapman being starved out after being served a bloody tampon in a bun.
Of course, this is just one of many situations which arise from Chapman’s complete naivety. Many of these situations result in great comedy. Nickels, a wild-haired drug addict, asks Chapman what her crime is. Chapman replies that she read in a book that prisoners aren’t supposed to ask that. Cue people making fun of her for studying for prison. Piper’s endearing missteps make up a large part of the drama that unfolds, particularly in the first half of the season. In the first few weeks of her incarceration, Piper has to deal with race segregation, a crazy-eyed stalker, a missing screwdriver and her ex-girlfriend to name but a few problems.
But this isn’t really a show about how a nice, white girl from an affluent educated background doesn’t fit in with all the other prisoners. It’s also not about Piper becoming more like her inmates to fit in either or the opposite case of her inmates being more like her. No, this show is a lot more nuanced than that.
In fact, one of its greatest strengths is how despite having this first-person perspective with Piper, the show manages to highlight its surrounding cast in a very sympathetic way. There are many flashbacks involving the other prisoners, showing the decisions and events that led to their incarceration. And each of these backstories is just as compelling as the main character. They cover a hugely diverse range of situations, but they tend to share a common element: people make mistakes. And some people pay more for those mistakes than others.
I’m glad this show takes the opportunity to shine a light on society’s ills, a tone inherited from the autobiography that the show is based on. Piper Chapman is frankly lucky to be a middle-class, educated, white female. She is shown preferential treatment from the guards and her counsellor because of it. For many of the women in Litchfield though, their lots are not so lucky. We learn about the black girl who’s lived in institutions her whole life. Or the drug addict who was kicked out on the streets before she was even 18. There’s a Hispanic mother-daughter duo who perpetuate the cycle of poverty and crime through growing up in huge families and living with dodgy men. What chance did they ever have in life?
Don’t get me wrong, this show isn’t about justifying crime. It’s made very clear that a lot of these women did bad things and deserve their prison sentences. But what the show does do is highlight a lot of the societal problems from which these bad actions stem from, and it does so in a way that isn’t too preachy. Here’s a show which accurately deals with issues of race, class, education, family and opportunities all in very sensitive ways. There aren’t many TV shows which tackle such a diverse range of characters and situations and stories. Orange is the New Black reminded me of how class-blind, how colour-blind and how reality-blind a lot of current TV shows are. And whilst Orange isn’t perfect and can sometimes resort to stereotypes, it makes a real concentrated effort to be realistic which turns out to be successful on both an entertainment level as well as a more philosophical one.
Now, whilst I did enjoy this show a lot, it isn’t perfect and there are a few flaws I wanted to point out. For example, one character, a pervy prison guard nicknamed Pornstache, is a bit too heavy-handed in his villainous portrayal; he’s just way too unlikeable and irredeemable, and such a shallowly written character really sticks out in a show with much deeper and multi-faceted characters. There are also slight variables in quality and tone which make certain episodes feel a bit disjointed from the others. One involving a chicken springs to mind as feeling a bit like a filler episode, although there is still some deep content hidden beneath the rather zany plot.
However, these are rather minor quibbles and they don’t detract from the overall freshness of the show. There are currently 13 episodes out in its first season, but to be honest, it’s not a show I’d recommend binging. I watched about an episode or two a day, and thought that was a reasonable pace. The thing is, I feel like it’s the type of show that watching too much of can spoil. I would recommend taking it slow, reflecting and really engaging with the show, rather than just binge watching the whole lot in one go.
Overall, I was incredibly impressed with Orange is the New Black. It’s funny, engaging, with just the right amount of entertainment value for the subject matter that it deals with. It’s easy-watching with its fairly light plotlines, but it manages to engage on a much deeper level as well. It hit me emotionally, certainly, and I have to say, this show really affected me. It opened my eyes to the potential for good, strong female characters in a way that no other media ever has. This show has literally changed how I view television from here on out.