Orange is the New Black: a review of a Netflix Original series

OrangeitNB

I mainlined the first season of this TV show recently. It is a Netflix Original program that has been lauded by many critics, so I couldn’t resist. I don’t watch much on Netflix, so I was happy to get my money’s worth and more.

Based on a memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman, it takes place in a women’s prison in the U.S.A. The protagonist, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) is beginning her 15 month sentence for a youthful indiscretion (peripheral involvement in an illegal drug organization). Chapman, as she is now referred to in her new home away from home, is a fish out of water. An artisinal bath product entrepreneur suddenly surrounded by women from the other side of the tracks

The strength of this show is in the ensemble of characters that populate the prison, the inmates and the guards. Some are characterized more vividly than others, but they all seem interesting. The narrative deftly travels back and forth between the present and the past. My favourite segments are the flashbacks; the result is rich characterization. The acting is superb; a special mention goes to Kate Mulgrew who is tough yet vulnerable as Red, the Russian-American mother hen. I also enjoy seeing Laura Prepon as Alex Vause, Chapman’s ex-girlfriend drug dealer who set her on this path of delinquency.

I watched Piper Chapman navigate the written and unwritten rules of prison life (note to self, never insult the food in front of the inmate who runs the kitchen). I watched her mourn the life she once had. I watched her build  new connections among a motley crew of addicts, dealers, petty thieves and murderers. Truth be told, she was not that sympathetic a character. But it didn’t matter, she served as my entry point to a world I had only rarely seen on screen (both small and large). She was surrounded by a treasure of interesting stories as I got to know the other characters. Every day was a power struggle, whether it be among the guards, between the guards and the inmates, or among the inmates themselves. I found it fascinating. The themes encountered included work place politics, corruption, smuggling, sexuality, fidelity, barter economy, loyalty, tribalism, birth, abortion, motherhood, long distance relationships, religion, mental health, remorse, adaptation and survival of the fittest.

What I especially liked about this show was its representative depiction of minorities, many of who were not simply racial stereotypes. And the main cast was mostly women, women who were of a broad age range, varied skin colour, diverse ethnic background; some used to be men, some of them liked women, some liked men, some seemed to like both. Not since Desperate Housewives was there such an ensemble of female characters (ignoring shows that have “Real Housewives” in the title). The TV show ACES the Bechdel Test.

The first season is primarily episodic and well executed by Jenji Kohan. She is a TV producer of Weeds fame, a show I could never get into. It has a great soundtrack that starts with the opening sequence.

There are 13 solid episodes that kept me revisiting the treadmill. I am looking forward to season 2.

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