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Thursday, August 29, 2013

Orange Is The New The Black: An Irresistible Look At Amorality And Social Survival Among Women in Prison

While actress Anna Gunn's outspoken New York Times piece that addressed some viewers' harsh perception of complex female characters continues to stir online debate, lets expand the discussion to a series that flashes a similarly uncompromising light on its female characters-- Orange Is The New Black. Have you heard of it? If you haven't, you really need to get on it and quick. It's one of the latest series in Netflix's impressive original programming that follows the lives of federal female prisoners. Simply put, Orange Is The New Black is more confirmation that the small screen has some of the most layered and satisfying characters for actresses.

In case you're unfamiliar with the premise, OITNB follows real-life character Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a waspy middle class Caucasian woman who is sentenced to one year in jail for her part in shady drug dealings with her ex-girlfriend, Alex (Laura Prepon), that occurred 10 years prior. By the time of the ruling, however, her "wild" past is long behind her and she is engaged to be married to her boyfriend, Larry (Jason Biggs). Very soon after the couple exchanges teary goodbyes, the plot quickly moves from a whimpering waspy romance to a riveting drama that could best be described as The Vagina Monologues meets Oz. Once Piper enters prison, the show shifts tones and unleashes a variety of tangible narratives of women who just so happened to be trapped in purgatory.

In a series where most of the characters are female, wear the exact same wardrobe (an orange or khaki jumpsuit) and reside in the exact same place, its creator Jenji Kohan and her team of writers have managed to conceive individual narratives for more than ten inmates. Each of them is as richly crafted and riveting as the next. They even each have their day of poking holes in the social and legal justices systems as much as they can while confined behind bars (anything to keep their days occupied). As their stories begin to unfold (and, at times, unravel), you become more invested in them--Who were they before they got here? Where are they from? How do they survive? 

Although each episode surrounds Piper's wide-eyed navigation of prison life, the other characters, portrayed by marvelous actresses of various ethnic backgrounds and age groups, serve equal purposes. You've got Suzanne aka 'Crazy Eyes' (played with hilarious intensity by Uzo Aduba), the haughty Russian jail chef, Galina aka 'Red' (Kate Mulgrew), the very territorial Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst), wild-coifed lesbian Nicky (the always spectacular Natasha Lyonne), soft-spoken tough chick, Dayanara (Dascha Polanco), loud-mouthed diva, Tasha aka 'Taystee' (Danielle Brooks), fallen track star Janae (Vicky Jeudy), transgender prima donna, Sofia (Laverne Cox), and methhead bible-thumper Tiffany aka 'Pennsatucky' (played with surprising depth by Taryn Manning). And that's not even all of them.

What's so addictive about OITNB is that these women are messy, hilarious, rebellious, lewd, vulnerable, savvy, and strong all at once. They're cliquey (think junior high school cliquey, where even the cafeteria is a stressful social warfield). Some even suffer from highly questionable hygiene. And, yes, others may actually be undiagnosed lunatics. They're totally unapologetic. But you know what? I can't get enough of them. Of course, I can't imagine in real life ever calling one of them on the phone and inviting them to Sunday brunch or becoming besties. But that's the thing; I don't feel I have to relate to a female character in order to find them completely enthralling to watch. In fact, I don't even have to like them.

For instance, Piper is can at times be eye-roll worthy--a privileged young woman who's made very, very bad decisions but blames everyone else for them. She is finally forced to come to terms with that realization and hopelessly tries to make amends before it's too late. Her perpetually timid kitten act borders on grating. But she's authentic; you may not like her but you know her type. She is familiar. She is exactly how you would expect someone in her position to react once behind bars--dumbfounded, somehow feeling more above jail time than the other inmates yet still absolutely terrified of them. Picture a preppy Wall Street hustler ending up in jail, struggling by sheer necessity to acquire quick street cred. That's Piper.

The rest of the characters also teeter on the opposite end of the likability scale, but are so interesting to watch that you don't mind plunging into their stories. Even when they're doing something of which you disprove, they remain true to their character's identity--an important aspect of any personality development. They are profoundly flawed, but pretty soon you'll find yourself caring about them.

You may even end up rooting for Alex, who Piper would like to have us believe is her biggest rival in the jail. Nicky is more of an unreliable frenemy, slithering between crowds and often leaving mild chaos in her wake. However, her omnipresence and nosy nature come in handy when one of the characters is in a bind. Dayanara, who's forced into a compromising situation, could also be criticized for putting herself in an even crappier position than she already was in. Meanwhile, Taystee finds herself in an enviable position until one wrong move pushes her right back where she started. Ugh, if they could only heed my warnings as I shout at them through the TV screen! They're so frustrating

Orange Is The New Black doesn't hide behind the amoral values it presents, nor does it ever attempt to condemn or judge its own characters. Rather, it creates an open and accepted breeding ground for imperfection, while it also helps break down longstanding stereotypes of how ideal female characters are supposed to look, act and feel.


Brittani Burnham said...

I really need to start watching this. I've had it in my queue since it premiered.

Daniel said...

I really enjoyed this show and plan to revisit it. I'm really happy to read that you enjoyed it as much as I did.

Jenji Kohan's name alone got me interested but I really didn't know what to expect, it's a classic blend of her style of humor and depth, can't wait for season 2.

Dan O. said...

Loved this show so much. The first couple of episodes didn't do much for me, but once I watched the 4th, everything kicked in! And I haven't looked back since. Nice review.

Catstello said...

Fantastic article about a fantastic show! It's so great seeing more and more strong female character on TV

Courtney Small said...

I just finished the first season and thought it was fantastic. I like that Chapman, and most of the women for that matter, is complex and constantly evolves with each episode. It is refreshing to see a show with a predominantly female cast have such fully realized characters. I hope they keep it up with season 2.

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