Last week, I had a brief stint petsitting for a rather nice couple in this dimension. They had access to Netflix, which I haven’t had access to since after the new season of Arrested Development came out. Since I now had Netflix back in my life for a brief amount of time, I decided to start on Orange Is The New Black because so many people I know had been talking about it. I figured I could start it, and then pick back up this week when I went back for a longer petsitting stint.
I ended up marathoning the entire first season the entire time I was there.
I couldn’t help it! Orange Is The New Black is one of the most captivating new dramas I’ve seen in a long time that didn’t involve Sherlock Holmes or some sort of science fiction aspect. It’s just a series about women making the best of what they have, even if that is in a federal prison.
You’ve probably heard a lot about Orange Is The New Black. Maybe you’ve heard nothing at all. Whatever you’ve heard, I want to tell you about why you should be watching this show.
1.) It’s honestly and truly about women – There are a lot of shows out there that tell me they’re about women, but don’t feel that way. Any period of time watching Lifetime or Oxygen will do that. It often feels like it’s just what marketing tells people what women are like.
Orange Is The New Black doesn’t do that.
Since the show is set in a women’s prison, 98% of the characters are women. In fact, there are only 10 male characters that are seen in multiple episodes and only three of them have been in all 13 episodes of season one. That leaves us with a dynamic cast of women that come from all walks of life. There are women of color, queer women, plus sized women, and immigrant women, and they all have their own stories. They’re not their to be plot accessories to Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling). They are a part of her story, but they’re there with their own stories as well.
2.) It tells a trans* story that doesn’t end in tragedy – One of the remarkable things about the show is that there is a trans* character that is played by a trans* woman. Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox) is the prison’s hair stylist who is in prison for credit card fraud. Before going to prison, her wife Crystal was very supportive of her transition and even helped her pick out new clothes for herself. Her relationship with her son Michael becomes strained, but we see that perhaps it is on the route to rebuilding for season 2.
Sophia could have easily been a background character who only got focus in a couple of episodes. Instead, we see her for a majority of the first season. We see that she’s extremely resourceful, which is something that landed her in prison and is what is helping her survive it. She doesn’t take anyone’s shit, but is learning to work through her own. It’s also refreshing that one character we see her becoming good friends with is a nun named Sister Ingalls (Beth Fowler), which helps prove that religion identity doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive from the company you choose to keep. While Burset’s story is one that rarely happens in real life, it is refreshing to see it play out the way it has on television.
3.) Chapman is a great everyman character – Love her or hate her, Chapman does exactly what she’s supposed to do in this story: be our eyes and ears to prison life from an outside perspective. She’s extremely privileged, coming from a WASP-y as hell background and only getting 15 months at Litchfield for a crime she committed a decade before, but she still has to come face to face with herself in prison. She has to learn to survive in a way she’s never had to before and with people she’s not used to experiencing in her day to day life. While she can be obnoxious, I know that I would probably be similar to her if I had to go to jail. She’s no Joan Watson, but Chapman is a great insider to being the new fish in the fishbowl.
4.) It’s extremely funny – The later episodes of season 1 definitely fall more in the drama category, but at its heart, it’s a dramedy. And when it goes funny, it doesn’t relent. Characters like Taystee, Nicky, Big Boo, and Susie provide consistent hilarity while still being allowed to have their own stories outside of being comedic relief.
However, there is no funnier episode than episode 5, “The Chickening.” The whole episode is about what happens when Piper sees a feral chicken in the yard and the frenzy it sets off when everyone wants to catch it. The character who carries this episode the most is Red, who is played masterfully by Kate Mulgrew. I keep saying she needs to win an Emmy for this show. Partially for the later episodes, but mostly for the following speech:
5.) It’s based on a true story! …Sorta – Orange Is The New Black is based on a book by the same name by a woman named Piper Kerman, who serves as executive producer of the series. Now, I haven’t actually read the book yet, but from my understanding, the series takes the basic premise of Kerman’s experience (spending 15 months in a federal prison for transporting drug money with her girlfriend 10 years before) as well as basis for some of the characters, but everything else was embellished for television. The biggest one being her relationship with her fiancé. For Kerman, Larry Smith was extremely supportive and helpful to her. For Chapman, Larry Bloom (played by Jason Biggs) is what most people would call a “tool.” He’s extremely exploitive of his fiancé’s situation, but won’t take opportunity to try to see her side of it.
Still, it’s cool to know that a series like this has some basis in reality, even if it’s just the frame work for which the rest of the series is painted in.
6.) It gives humanity and sympathy to characters that usually get none – Most of the time in fiction, we’re not allowed to identify with people in prison. Unless they’re some sort of male anti-hero. Female criminals don’t exist except to be a cautionary tale.
Orange Is The New Black is not a cautionary tale. It’s a story of women who have made mistakes. Mistakes that they’re still grappling with. It’s the story of how they cope, how they survive, and how they maintain what’s left of their life on the outside. They’re not saints, but they’re not complete sinners either. They’re just humans doing their best with what they’ve got.
Which, really, is why the series is so easy to marathon in a day. Maybe it is a bit sensational, but there is still real human emotion to be had.
I’m back on a regular schedule this week. Come back on Wednesday where I give another six reasons list for something completely different.