I Have To Go To Another Prison (Series Review: “Orange is the New Black, Season 1”)

orange_is_the_new_black PosterA provocative new original series for Netflix, Orange is the New Black is a women-behind-bars prison story not for the faint of heart and, might I add, highly addictive. It is based on the autobiographical memoir of the same name by Brooklynite Piper Kerman, who also serves as Executive Producer.  The creator of the series is Jenji Kohan, of Showtime’s Weeds fame.  Netflix has just released all 13 episodes in season 1 (just as it did with its wildly successful first original series, House of Cards) but went one step further with OITNB; it actually renewed the series for a second season before the first one even aired.  I guess it knew a sure-fire hit when it saw one.  It’s almost impossible to resist the temptation to marathon the entire season, which Netflix and the producers seem to expect, given the absence of those ‘previously on’ scenes at the top of most episodic series.  And yes, this is a show that is definitely addictive, though not because of the titillating and borderline gratuitous lesbian sex which the producers seemed to feel was necessary to capture its audience early on. It’s because of the great writing, which relays the poignant drama of the women’s back stories as well as a running flashback narrative of Piper’s disturbing former life (and the reason she’s in the Big House now) as well as her healthy current relationship with her fiancé, Larry (in a surprise bit of casting genius with Jason Biggs.)  The show captures not only the pathos but the blackly comic ridiculousness of everyday prison life which seems so natural, even elemental to every character’s survival, whether serving time inside the walls or outside – from Larry’s perspective – as he himself is ‘doing time’ waiting for Piper’s release and growing increasingly wary of what he suspects is going on inside.

 

SnapShot Plot

In a breakout role that is guaranteed to make her a star, actress Taylor Schilling (you may recall her in last year’s The Lucky One or her leading role in Atlas Shrugged: Part 1) plays Piper Chapman, a lanky, waspy, 30-something blonde from Connecticut who’s gone to all the right schools, hails from a moderately privileged family, and possesses just that mix of liberal politics paired with enough Humanities classes to make her a sparkling conversationalist and just so much fun to be around.  What she also possesses is a dangerous taste for adventure as well as a definite sexual curiosity in women, both of which she has tucked away securely in her past as she settles into a loving heterosexual relationship with Larry.  As well as showing great range in her portrayal of Piper, a big part of Schilling’s appeal is her voice; it’s an innocent, little girl, dreamy cadence which can almost hypnotize you into thinking that’s all she’s about, until it’s filled with rage and desperation and you’re shocked back into the reality of her predicament.

The series begins after Piper’s past has caught up with her and she’s about to self-surrender at the Litchfield NY Womens’ Prison, where she will spend the next 15 months serving out her sentence for being a money runner in a drug smuggling ring 10 years earlier, while she was involved in a lesbian relationship with the ring’s ‘mule-runner’, Alex (oh-so coolly played by Laura Prepon….yes!…from That 70’s Show)  When Piper arrives, she’s the quintessential deer caught in headlights; she’s completely unprepared for the sights, sounds and textures of an environment brimming with so much violence, desperation, fear, and aggression.  And so much Crazy, did I mention the Crazy?

In each of the 13 episodes, we can trace Piper’s learning curve as she navigates a terrain that would have been unfathomable in her regular life.  We watch as her character is shocked, frightened, threatened, cast out, humiliated, and yes, even entertained by this unthinkable system and bizarre set of tribal and territorial rules that define prison life.  And slowly, what was once such a strange and ugly world takes on a kind of normalcy, even to the point of mundane.  The trick, though, is to never underestimate what a powder keg it can turn into in one split second.  As the weeks turn into months, we are swept up in not only Piper’s experience but that of the other inmates and a few of the prison guards and administrators; thus we soon see how prison life is such a rich breeding ground for stories of the human condition.

 

Parting Shot

I think the question always posed about a prison drama is, how realistic is its portrayal?  Is there really that much girl-on-girl activity?  Is it really that racially and culturally divided among inmates?  Is there really that much violence and substance abuse?  Are there always those few guards who are so evil and predatory that it’s a wonder nobody exposed them or, better yet, eliminated them for good?  Perhaps the only way to find out is to get yourself sent behind bars for a personal focus group testing…..I think I’ll just take Orange is the New Black on face value and safely enjoy the addiction.

 

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1 Comment

  • Kristin Marchie says:

    Just so, Norma! I watched this series in rapid succession which definitely intensifies both our sense of the characters and the plot. I felt both a need to know the inmates as they related to Piper, and who she was, as well as who they were, “including why they were incarcerated in the first place. I wanted to know how I felt about them. Could I know them, like them, or understand them? Was Piper, I wondered, a credible convict in light of her seemingly respectable and Connecticut upperclass background? Could the series pull off comedic dark humor and still be regarded seriously. Well I heard the real Piper talk on a program along with other female inmates released and returned to society. Piper says she had it easy, including a loving home and no to come home to after incarceration sentence served.. The reality appears to be that of the desperate character who returned to prison by choice for the familiar comfort and security of the prison structure. More’s the pity that we know nothing of their plight or their profoundly diminished
    capacity to escape a downward spiral. We are introduced to a variety of women and clued in to all the reasons they got there and I agree with NORMA, and take it further. Can “Orange is the New Black” be more than a good series which entertained and provoked some social conversation. Can it effect change? We always hope to awaken our consciences. Here could we, with one Netflix streaming pick, start to talk about how to hold our prison system accountable. It’s obvious we need to to protect inmates from further degradation and to
    provide the training, education, and event the mental health counseling that could
    save at least some of these women. If there’s one talk show about the series, there will be more. I can only hope that starting with the women, we will look with greater compassion on those who wear black because its all they own. I am encouraged to hear from the twenties and thirties something’s, that the series is wildly popular. THANK YOU NORMA’S PICKS. Great pick totally great pick

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