Review: Orange is the New Black (Seasons 1 and 2)

The Thinker by Rodin

Good news! Hollywood has finally produced a series that represents the full colors of America’s ethnic rainbow! And it’s done very well. The only downside: it depicts life at the fictional Litchfield Penitentiary, run by the “Federal Department of Corrections”, supposedly somewhere in upstate New York. And except for some guards and a couple of administrators, there’s not a man in sight because it’s a women’s penitentiary.

I’ve been avoiding Orange is the New Black, the Netflix series, for a couple of years. It’s always hard to decide if I want to invest the time in a TV drama series. Thanks to the proliferation of cable channels and streaming services, there are an overwhelming amount of them out there. Even being retired, I couldn’t begin to watch them all. I did try a couple of episodes of Breaking Bad, but the level of violence was more than I could stomach.

So it’s surprising that I could get into OITNB because it has plenty of violence, not to mention sex, nudity, cursing and more adult topics than I can enumerate. And truthfully, if these were scheduled for theatrical release, they would warrant somewhere between an R and an X rating. I’ve seen stuff in OITNB I’ve never seen elsewhere outside of X rated sites like xhamster.com, such as an explicit picture of a woman’s vagina.

If the goal of cinema is to take viewers into a whole new world, OITNB succeeds very well. What an interesting, fascinating and disgusting set of characters we get in this minimum-security women’s prison, sometimes all at the same time. You want both the inmates and the guards to be stereotypes but none of these are. The exception is Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling). Piper is something of a lead character, at least at the beginning, a generally goody two shoes blonde white lady in her thirties. She happens to fall in lesbian love with Alex (Laura Prepon), a drug runner. Years afterward she gets ratted on by Alex, and ends up at Litchfield. This does not make her fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs) happy and he awkwardly tries to stay faithful to her while she sits behind bars.

Except there aren’t many iron bars at Litchfield: the “girls” sleep in dorms where they are regularly searched and humiliated. In their internet-free zone they mostly self-segregate by race or age (there is a fascinating group of older characters, including Kate Mulgrew as “Red”, who runs the kitchen). Most of them are pretty messed up (not a surprise), but these include many of the guards and administrators (perhaps a bit of a surprise). Proving that everything is relational, the guards abuse the inmates, some of them screw the inmates and some of them love the inmates. Litchfield is a tangled web of real life: a mixture of characters from the sweet Morella (Yael Stone), to the ultra-butch Big Boo (Carrie Black), to frequently insane Suzanne (Uzo Abuda) to the cold and steely killer Vee (Lorraine Toussant).

I was surprised by how easily I got sucked into this series. I was also surprised by how the characters grew on me, including some surprises like Suzanne, also known as Crazy-Eyes. The producers created a little universe inside a prison and accurately depicted life inside it. Based on a memoir by Piper Kerman and her experiences at FCI Danbury (Connecticut), OITNB feels eerily authentic. It opens windows into the human soul and human experiences you won’t expect. Unlike Breaking Bad, which seems to revel in the worst of us, OITNB gives us a more accurate portrait of mostly good people gone bad, often due to factors outside of their control.

OITNB gives us a dose of real people coping (often badly) with what life has thrown at them. More importantly it gives us an opportunity to see women as people, instead of objects. It also allows seeing correctional officers as people, often flawed and profane, and with their own issues and foibles.

For me one mark of a good series is whether it follows me around. OITNB is like that: it will haunt you when you are not watching it, or follow you in your dreams. I found it hard not to binge on the show but sometimes I would succumb anyhow and watch three episodes in a row. It’s not really titillating; it’s more a grand exposition. While there is plenty of lesbian sex, much of it quite graphic, and shower scenes (pretty much everyone ends up at least partially naked) it’s not so much the individual characters that pulled me in as the exposition of this particular prison system in all its complexity and garishness.

So as long as you are up for a grownup adventure, it’s definitely worth your time. It helps if you are not homophobic, squeamish or racist. It’s a great reason to subscribe to Netflix if you don’t already. I have been watching Netflix’s House of Cards for years. In Season 4 though I find House of Cards is getting not so watchable. OITNB is much more so, perhaps because it feels more real and less Machiavellian.

Kudos to Netflix, creator Jenji Kohan, the series producers, directors and actors for giving us a compelling series worth watching that will take you to new places both inside the human soul and the worlds around it. Now I need to start watching Season 3.