“There’s always hope tomorrow will be taco night.”
So sums up the hopes, fears, wants and desires of the characters in Netflix’s new original show Orange Is The New Black. Based on a memoir by Piper Kerman, OITNB sees Piper Chapman heading to jail after having transported a suitcase of drug money for her dealer girlfriend a decade earlier. But Piper is no low-life criminal: she’s a nice, NYC-dwelling white lady, engaged to be married to a writer! To say she’s unprepared for a stretch in a women’s prison is an understatement – especially when she finds out her ex-girlfriend Alex is in the same facility…
Brought to the screen by ‘Weeds’ creator Jenji Kohan, the two shows share a lot of DNA in that they both tell the story of nice, middle-class white ladies being plunged into the underbelly of society. The satire here isn’t as sharp as on the previous show, and OITNB much of the time avoids being too on-the-nose in its criticism of the penal system: we spend a lot of time with those characters, so we know how hellish it can be.
But who cares when the show is this much fun? Populated with a sprawling cast of disparate characters, the show soon begins to use Piper’s story as a jumping off point to explore the lives of the other inmates.
The show’s deft use of flashbacks to flesh out not only the characters’ pasts but also their inner lives quickly establishes them as three-dimensional and it’s evident that Jenji Kohan is in the business of exploding stereotypes: ‘sassy transsexual hairdresser’ Sophia used to be a fireman and has a wife who supported her through her transformation; ‘stern Russian matriarch’ Red was a downtrodden wife in her former life and underneath her brassy exterior there beats a maternal heart of gold.
Also, this show is comeback central: Donna from That 70s Show! Captain Janeway! Jessica from American Pie! Jim from American Pie! Everyone’s here, and everyone’s amazing.
But it’s the newcomers that truly shine in OITNB. Taylor Schilling is a revelation as Piper, hitting all the right emotional beats in a refreshingly honest performance. The character herself is, let’s face it, pretty annoying, but Schilling makes a difficult role utterly compelling. Laverne Cox brings a lot of heart to the role of transsexual beautician Sophia, while Uzo Aduba as Suzanne ‘Crazy Eyes’ makes an occasionally OTT character vulnerable and believable, and Danielle Brooks and Samira Wiley as Taystee and Poussey are a brilliant comedy double-act.
Even the prison officers – mild-mannered Healey (‘Weeds’ alum Michael J. Harney), naïve Bennett (Matt McGorry) and uber-shit Pornstache (Pablo Schreiber, another ‘Weeds’ graduate) – you may think you have figured out in terms of heroes and villains in the opening episodes, but they will have subverted your expectations by the end of the season.
As well as being a tremendously written show, by turns hilarious and moving, with an immensely talented cast, OITNB strives to tell the kind of stories we rarely see on TV. There’s a lot of lesbian focused storylines, whether by fully card-carrying members of the club such as Boo (Lea DeLaria) Alex (Laura Prepon) and Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) or women driven there by their unique circumstances like Morello (Yael Stone) or, indeed, Piper herself. And it’s probably the most diverse cast on television, accurately reflecting the skewed demographic breakdown of the prison system with a high number of African-American and Latino inmates.
It’s been an interesting year for Netflix original programming, as it’s tried to position itself in the vein of several different brands in order to see where it fits in: House of Cards appealed to the highbrow HBO audience, Hemlock Grove to the young horror fans of the CW and the revival of Arrested Development made it seem like a scrappy newcomer, ready to be the audience’s champion. But it’s only with OITNB that it seems to have found its place as a producer of quality, highly original programming, unencumbered by the restrictions of a broadcast network. OITNB is one of the most subversive yet talked about shows of the year, and is sure to sweep awards season next year in a way that Netflix previous efforts will surely fail to do this year. Full props to the immensely talented cast and crew – I can’t wait for season two.