We've seen an increase in strong female characters on TV (at least, on non-network TV), and on the upcoming Netflix original series Orange Is The New Black, we've reached some sort of pinnacle. Not only is the cast almost entirely comprised of women playing interesting, distinct roles, but most of them aren't white. Yes, the main character, Piper (played magnificently by Taylor Schilling), is white, but surrounding her is a glorious phalanx of colour.
A lot of people will moan that it takes place in prison, and of course that's the only place where we'll see minority women in powerful, present roles. But before you lambast the show and dismiss it entirely, let's take a look at a couple facts: a) it's based on a book by Piper Kerman, a real-life account -- so even if the characters are embellished a little, it must be founded on some real truths, and b) while the number of women incarcerated is relatively low (compared to the male population), of all women sent to prison, the number of African-American and Hispanic women is disproportionately large. African-American women are three times more likely to be incarcerated, while Hispanic women are 69 times more likely. So there is definitely some truth to this fish-out-of-water tale; it's not just a transparent vehicle for a white person to experience non-white culture, as I'm sure some critics will accuse the show of.
OITNB is also addictive. Creator Jenji Kohan (Weeds) has managed to craft a show built on solid misfit appeal. In the first six episodes (all I've seen), we meet Piper, a neurotic, somewhat naive woman unsure of her life direction, Galina "Red" Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew), the hard-as-nails prison chef with a sad backstory, Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne), an ex-druggie lesbian, Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), a charismatic former drug runner, Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox), a post-op male-to-female transgender woman, "Crazy Eyes" (Uzo Aduba), who's ... well ... crazy, and Dayanara Diaz (Dascha Polanco), a young woman stuck in jail with her ice-cold mother. Remember when Weeds first started out and you couldn't get enough? Fantastically written characters, interesting storylines, events that, at times, left your heart pounding? OITNB has that same hook, and with the exception of a few faults, is the kind of show that Netflix binge-watchers will love.
Character-driven shows are always a joy to watch, especially as their individual storylines continue to intersect and intertwine. There's no overt "life lessons" in OITNB, but it does succeed in making us, the unimprisoned, feel stupid about our petty little problems. The visits from the outside (from Piper's fiance -- played by Jason Biggs -- and her sister and mother) are entertaining for that precise reason; when Biggs complains about having to consistently masturbate in his fiance's absence, Piper retorts: "Yes, I see how difficult this is for you." It puts things in perspective, in a humorous way, when Piper has to defecate in front of all the other inmates, since there are no doors on the washroom stalls (except for one, which is nearly impossible to access. You'll see why.).
I'm a big fan of Schilling in the title role. Relatively unknown save for a few movie parts, it's good to have a fresh face in the lead. She grew on me rather quickly; at first, I felt she was a bit of a limp rag, cluelessly wandering through life, but then, through various flashbacks, her character became easy to understand. We've all been there: 20 years old and stupid, wanting to experience the world but not knowing how to do it. Piper is just one of the unlucky people who made a bad choice that comes back to haunt her. (Full disclosure: I haven't read the book yet, but I plan to!) Schilling's deadpan expressions and snap comedic timing help us empathize and grow to love her.
Other casting choices are great, too. Long-absent (or at least it feels that way) Natasha Lyonne resurfaces in fine form, playing the troubled girl role to a tee. Prepon excels as the bad girl influence, and it's nice to see her as something other than Donna on That 70's Show. She works better in a dramatic/semi-comedic environment, in my opinion. Trekkies will be pleased to see Mulgrew as a Russian chef instead of a Trek captain, even though the forced accent is very obviously fake at certain moments. Transgender actor Laverne Cox is an easy favourite, with her bitchy one-liners and no-nonsense persona. A huge standout for me is Aduba as "Crazy Eyes," whose name is indicative of her character. Girl is crazy, and Aduba is genuinely frightening in the role. You can't tell if she's harmless or secretly plotting Piper's death. Guess we'll find out!
Taking place in women's prison, obviously there is a lot of lesbianism, and OITNB doesn't shy away from it. While some of the scenes featuring cunnilingus are laughable (I don't think the vagina is located at mid-thigh), you have to commend the show for pushing the envelope. It's not the kind of television where sex is alluded to -- it's right there for all to see. Sadly, I'm certain that this up-front approach will probably turn a lot of viewers off (homophobes and prudes, I'm talking to you). What's even sadder is the fact that, with this cast of almost all women, a lot of men won't be giving this show a chance. It's a shame, especially considering the many different kinds of women we get to watch. These aren't caricatures, they're real. They may, at times, be a little one-note and trope-y, but I would rather have that any day over yet another show about vacuous morons traipsing around their California mansions.
The lovely little backstories peppered throughout the main storyline provide great exposition, so we don't have to suffer through long explanations. They also break us away from the prison walls, which prevents any monotony or plot claustrophobia from setting in. Like a collection of bizarre vignettes, OITNB is a glimpse into an overlooked world that we would never get a chance to see otherwise. Funny and dramatic all at once, it's not surprising this show was renewed for a second season before it even premiered.
Since the hyper-realism of Oz, I never thought I'd be able to stomach a TV show based in prison again. OITNB takes the harsh reality and makes it palatable, and Netflix deserves kudos for eagerly putting this out there. Kerman, who actually lived through the experience, also deserves a thank you for sharing with us. You can't make this stuff up.
Orange Is The New Black premieres on Netflix on July 11.
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