Laughs, tears, and a lot of emotions – Orange Is The New Black has it all.
There’s a moment when, after watching the first episode of Orange Is The New Black, you’ll think back on it and try to figure out what you’ve just watched. Was it a drama or a comedy, or a bit of both? At times it sits uncomfortably in a no-man’s-land between genres, but if there’s one thing that’s sure, the overall result is an engrossing success with some serious emotional heft.
The concept behind the show is straightforwardly simple, and that is part of its charm. Based on the autobiographical book of the same name, Piper Chapman is a law-abiding member of the middle-class who finds herself incarcerated for a crime committed in her youth, ten years previously. Since her main interests are aromatherapy, health foods and her own social life, she is massively underprepared for life in prison. It’s a classic fish-out-of-water story, but one which works well because Piper is so hopelessly overwhelmed in such a dangerous situation.
After all, she hardly looks threatening, does she?
That danger provides the show with the kind of tension few others can match. Watching Piper try to navigate life in prison can be exhausting, particularly in the early episodes when she doesn’t yet know the ropes. Things don’t necessarily get easier as the series progresses, though; the missteps that Piper makes throughout mean that the threat only heightens rather than diminishing. At times, however, those same missteps can actually make the show difficult to watch. You’ll find yourself dreading what mistakes she’ll make next or, in the case of some cliff-hangers, the consequences of them.
Despite all of this, the real strength of Orange Is The New Black lies not in the tension it provides but in its emotional power. Piper’s arrest rips her not only from a comfortable life, but from her friends and fiancée, Larry, as well. To complicate matters, she finds that her former lesbian lover – the woman for whom she committed her crime, Alex Vause – is in prison with her. The way she interacts with these two and the other inmates is the show’s dramatic heart, and you’ll watch her change mentally and emotionally as things progress.
Piper must figure out who her heart belongs to: the man she is promised to, or the woman who betrayed her?
Season 1 largely revolves around Piper trying to adapt to life in prison, as well as juggle her relationships with Larry and Alex. Distanced from existence outside, she and Larry start to grow apart as they both struggle to comprehend what the other is going through. Alex is the real complication, though; not only do she and Piper have history, but she is also the one who named Piper to the police and landed her in prison in the first place. Piper struggles to figure out her emotions towards both Larry and Alex throughout the first season, and this is what gives the show its narrative drive.
Although Piper is the one the show follows, the other inmates are given as much character exploration as she is. Some of these people Piper has very little contact with, but the show gladly delves into the entire prison community. This is facilitated by a series of flashbacks, with each episode usually dedicated to a single character. This is a device which could easily end up jarring with the rest of the narrative, but which is handled deftly enough that it never does. Perhaps the best thing about these flashbacks is that they usually prioritise the character’s life and circumstances over the crimes they committed, a ploy which humanises them in ways that might otherwise be impossible.
On the whole, the show balances the story between Piper and the other inmates very proficiently. This is aided by a host of excellent performances; Kate Mulgrew as chief cook “Red” Reznikov is particularly excellent, and her battle with guard George “Pornstache” Mendez over control of the kitchen – and the contraband that comes through it – is one of the more engaging plot threads. The romance between inmate Daya and CO John Bennett is another story which will keep viewers on the edge of their seats, especially when Daya gets pregnant.
The hair alone tells you that this is not a woman to be messed with.
Season 2 is also excellent, and raises the stakes even further. It probes the corruption of Assistant Warden Natalie Figueroa, the mistreatment of the inmates by the prison authorities, and the continued fallout of events from Season 1. It fails, however, to balance the narrative as competently. Piper’s breakup with Larry and betrayal by Alex – leading to Alex’s early release – doesn’t carry the same drama as her early attempts to adjust to prison life. Larry himself remains as a main character despite having very little to do with Piper and, perhaps more fatally, being uninteresting and unlikeable. The show becomes somewhat dull when it follows him and starts to slow down.
Furthermore, Piper seems disassociated from other, more important events at the prison. She is wrapped up in her own affairs, which pale in comparison to the monumental power shift created by the arrival of Yvonne “Vee” Parker. Vee is quickly revealed as a master manipulator, who forges a gang of other inmates and bends them to her will, importing and dealing drugs in the prison. Her control over other characters you have come to like is deeply disturbing, and when war starts between her gang and Red’s, things start to build to a tense, dramatic conclusion. Piper has little to do with all of this, though, and actually gets side-lined by it.
Overall, Orange Is The New Black is nevertheless a great show across both its seasons. The strength of its cast, and the stories of the characters they play, is a triumph the likes of which is rarely seen on television. While its early episodes can’t quite find the right equilibrium between humour and drama, it proves a huge success once it finally does so. There is little to criticise; it does everything so well that, even when it does have occasional problems in one area, the rest holds it up without even a stumble. At times tragic, at times comedic, but always carrying some considerable emotional weight, Orange Is The New Black is a show which no Netflix subscriber should miss out on.
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