Wednesday, July 24, 2013

TV Review: Orange is the New Black (2013)

Orange is the New Black (season 1)

Created by: Jenji Kohan

Starring: Taylor Schilling
Laura Prepon
Jason Biggs
Kate Mulgrew
Natasha Lyonne
Pablo Schrieber

Synopsis: Piper must trade her comfortable New York life for an orange prison jumpsuit when her decade-old relationship with a drug runner catches up with her. (Via Netflix)

The series is also based on a book, Buzzfeed wrote an article about the main differences between the two if you're curious.


With my boyfriend down in Melbourne for PAX, I decided the time was ripe for a tv binge. I've been watching a hell of a lot of The West Wing recently, but I decided to log some hours with a show that didn't have a gazillion seasons made up of a trillion episodes. I'd heard a few positive mutterings on twitter about Orange is the New Black and since it was only 13 one hour episodes it seemed perfect. And perfect it was, because holy shit I stayed up until 4am watching all but the last three episodes and had to be up at 9am for work. So if you take obsessive binge watching as an indicator of quality, then this show is GOOD.

The concept didn't initially inspire much hope for me, I mean, a white girl who lives in a nice New York loft with her writer boyfriend and makes fancy soaps for a living goes to prison...all signs seemed like they were pointing directly towards a white-girl-saves-all-the-poc-and-desperate-criminals-because-she's-white-and-therefore-jesus type situation and I am not on board with that shit. But then I saw that it was created by Jenji Kohan (creator of Weeds which y'know at least had 3 good seasons) and I was like ok ok, I'll give it a chance because my girl Kohan doesn't really go for that white girl saves all BS.

Anyway, yeah it's totally NOT THAT. At times it's like Piper (the main character) thinks she has the power to heal or fix the others, but she's basically the worst person in there. If you've seen Weeds she's basically the Nancy Botwin character, and I hated Nancy, and to be honest, by the end of the series I pretty much hated Piper too. But hating Piper doesn't really matter, partly because I think you're supposed to (or at least think she's not so great) but also because even though this is a show about how a white girl goes to jail for transporting drug money across international lines because the girl she was hopelessly in love with was a drug baron (of sorts) ten years after the fact, the best parts of the show are when we see all the other prisoners interact and their flashbacks. It's a little black and white at time, the guards are evil and mean and take advantage of the prisoners (save a couple) and the prisoners are all really nice, they're just misunderstood/in the wrong place at the wrong time/caught in the system. But even with that, the characters are all really interesting and complicated and the actors who play them, mostly unknowns, are all so wonderful. Even the characters who are kind of stereotypes i.e. the loud, brash black woman, the Russian tyrant, the in-your-face lesbian, are revealed to have much more to them than you'd initially think, and in some cases, are using those stereotypes as shields to help them survive prison.

Each episode one or two of the characters have their pasts shown in flashbacks interspersed through the episode, and they're basically there to humanise the women, "yes this woman is loud and angry and anti-authoritarian but here are the events in her life that lead to that".  They're short and spread out enough that they don't overtake the actual story, but they're also crucial to the show's success. I don't think I would have liked the characters half as much, or understood them anyway, if I hadn't had these small glimpses. And even though the women in the prison are friends, and in some cases think of one another as mother/daughter, there's a real separation to their lives inside and outside prison, so with the flashbacks we're privy to a side of their character that no one in the prison gets to see or know. And that's pretty great, even if it does leave you wanting to scream "DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND HOW HURT AND MESSED UP SHE IS BECAUSE OF X" at other characters when they react certain ways.

So all the characters are fucked up in their own unique ways, and I can't even begin to tell you how much I adored all of them, and all of the little relationships and families that exist in the prison. Like Lorna Morello (played by Yael Stone) who is the most adorable little lady with this 1940s vibe who looks like Madonna in A League of our Own, or Crazy Eyes (played by Uzo Aduba) who I desperately want to know more about, or Sophia Burset (played by Laverne Cox), a transgender woman who is struggling to get her son to acknowledge her existence, or Taystee and Poussey who start out hating each other and end up the best of friends (seriously, they made me cry several times).  Even Piper, who is going through a major identity crisis and having to come to terms with her 'old' and 'current' lives, is fascinating. And to be fair, by the final four or so episodes the guards are also being fleshed out more, so hopefully by season 2 it will be less about how mean and ignorant the guards are and more as one guard tells Piper, "we all make dumb mistakes, the only difference is that you got caught for yours*"

Because it's set in a female prison, it's also a fantastic show for ladies. In some ways it's like a high school soapie on crack, there's name-calling and hair-pulling between the inmates, but it also deals with a lot of issues like sexual assault, prostitution, misogyny - both inside the prison and in the flashbacks outside of prison. And judging by the reviews all this lady drama and menstruation talk isn't scaring off the dude viewers which is AWESOME, because it's about god damn time they started to understand some of this shit!

When I was looking for gifs of the show on tumblr I saw some people complaining about the amount of lesbian scenes and boob shots in the show. To some extent I'm sure this was Netflix or whatever producer saying "sex sells! moar boobs, moar!" but it's also got an actual purpose, or at least I see a purpose to it**.

First, the boobs. It's a female prison and it's made pretty clear that there is zero privacy the second Piper shows up. So by showing us the naked females when there are scenes in the bathroom (a bathroom which has no doors and only shower curtains on some stalls) it forces you to recognise this lack of privacy. For sure some of it is the boobs=male audience thing, but I never really got an especially male gaze vibe from it all, and it all slotted in quite nice with the rest of the zero privacy aspects in the show.

Second, rape and relationships are both realities in male and female prisons. And this series looks at how this manifests, and the different ways this manifests, for these women. In a lot of cases it's in the form of friendships or mother/daughter relationships. Red, the Russian cook, takes young ex-junkies under her wing and looks after them, calling them her daughters. In other cases it becomes a sexual relationship, sometimes it's simply a consensual relationship between two women who'd perhaps be dating on the outside too. For some it's a power thing, and they "trade up" girlfriends every so often. For others it's about retaining sanity or doing something for themselves while they're in prison, and like Piper mentions at around the midway point to someone (to her fiancée Larry maybe?) she needs comfort, and to touch someone else so she doesn't completely lose touch with the world***. There is also the threat of rape or being forced into a relationship to survive the prison experience, but you don't ever really see this side of things in the series although it's mentioned on a couple of occasions.

Anyway, basically my point is, if you're going to see relationships in a place without doors on the bathroom stalls and without doors or screens to their sleeping quarters and where there is always a guard watching them, you're going to see boobs and sex from time to time. It's a small place, and they don't exactly have free reign to go and do as they choose, so why hide the reality of this situation?

So yeah, I don't really want to talk about the characters any more because I think you really need to learn about them as you go, and I actually don't like the love triangle between Alex (Piper's drug baron ex), Piper and Larry so I'm not going to bother with it (I will end up raging guys, I swear to god) but the last thing I want to mention, which I don't think spoils anything, is that halfway through Larry ends up on radio talking about his relationship with Piper while she's in prison. And he tells all the stories about the inmates that Piper told him, and they're completely warped from the events we actually saw or heard about. He just sees murderers and junkies and dangerous women so the stories he tells come across as really violent and frightening. And I kind of love that a lot, because at first I was like "Yes! That's exactly how we see people in prison, we just assume they're evil and they have malicious intent, so we don't listen to the actual stories or treat them like regular people". But then I was like, this is also true in reverse, we grow to love these women so much that the fact they murdered someone just seems unimportant, and maybe the stories actually are frightening but we don't see that because we're blinded by the awesome lady rap Tastee did in the previous scene?

So clearly this show is great because it made me think and it's all super lady-centric and there is not enough of that - but also, it's really funny, and touching, and the characters are bonkers good. So watch it, it's all on Netflix (and if you aren't on Netflix there are other...ways) and it's pretty great. So yes. All that.

Taystee is my girrrrrl

*Not a direct quote, I was too lazy to go back and find it word for word.

**According to the Buzzfeed article I linked to, the book basically has no sex/sexual relationships, so maybe it all entirely for the ratings and dude viewers, but I stand by my points.

***Also not a direct quote, see above re: laziness.


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