Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Orange is the New Black: A Netflix Original Series

I've just got over the shakes from my new addiction "Orange is the New Black" and I'm still fiending for a second season.  I had to get over the fact that the inmates of Litchfield would not be entertaining me with their disturbing yet often hilarious exploits. "Orange" is great right from the start, and it only gets better. I think it took a great leap forward in the prison genre by including a healthy dose of dark comedy. It very well could have been a disaster. "Orange is the New Black" has its share of relationships, conflict, danger, love, and betrayal. It’s addictive, funny, and moving. A story about strangers learning to live and work together has been done many times before. But it’s rarely done this intelligently. This sort of comedy isn't easy to do well, but the show's ambitions really pay off. It's far better than I dared to think was possible. It may be a little hyperbolic, but this show is among the best I've seen to date, and it is certainly the best I've seen this year.

Jenji Kohan's previous show, "Weeds," was more overtly advertised as a comedy (at least in the earlier, more watchable seasons). When I was first told about "Orange," it was described as a female Oz. I really wasn't expecting it to be funny. I knew it would be at least a little satirical as many entries in the upper- middle-class-white-woman-in-crisis genre tend to be. I wasn't expecting the blend of raw emotional turmoil with satirical observations about life. There were parts that made me cringe with recognition. From the very first episode I got the feeling that this show was a cut above the rest, but they were just getting started.


"Orange" has been especially smart in how it plays with our expectations. At first the characters seem like stereotypes. Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) seems crazy (as her nickname would imply), but as the season goes along, she surprises us with a background you wouldn't expect as well as depth of character that truly play on our expectations of what a crazy person is supposed to be. The vindictive Russian cook did appear to be an alpha bitch at first, but going into her backstory we find ourselves face to face with a vulnerable and ultimately pathetic woman who only wants to be treated with respect. It's both worse and better than we expect prison to be.

The loud characters were often cranked up at first, all the better to entertain new viewers, and to freak out Piper (Taylor Schilling) as she made her way through her first weeks in prison. As the episodes progressed, however, the show brilliantly portrayed each of these characters in a context that was relevant to each show through flashbacks. The history of each character slid right into place with the forward momentum of the action. "Orange" quietly becomes more compelling as we learn about the inmates. After about six or seven episodes you will be hooked. It's a real laugh-out-loud comedy with depth to a degree I've never seen successfully accomplished.


Tackling isolation that can come from institutionalizing people is not what I expected out of a comedy. Hearing voices and seeing things that people can't be sure are real was an indication of how seriously the show was taking the prison experience. Piper starts out as an oblivious, entitled, yuppie who isn't even aware of just how unaware she is. This is a common character in fiction, but by the end of season one, we know she's been changed, and the transformation is complete and utterly believable.

What's amazing is that the show was able to balance Piper's harrowing journey into the reality of prison life, with an assortment of absurd, ironic, and pitch-perfect, comedic moments that are as genuine as they are ridiculous. "Orange" makes it look easy to perfectly set up so many different kinds of stories. There's romance that feels honest and non-melodramatic, drug addiction that is stereotypical yet powerful (when it starts affecting fleshed-out sympathetic characters). There's games of power and politics played between guards and inmates, hilarious attempts to show how ridiculous "Scared Straight" programs can look while also showing how they could be useful. And let's not forget about the chicken. When the monotoned announcement sounds from the speakers telling inmates that the chicken was their mind's way of creating purpose for their meaningless lives, I nearly fell out of my chair from laughing so hard.

I love a show that can pull you into a world that seems real, complex, and believable right down to every little detail. "Orange" has given us that, and more, with a dozen fantastic characters to boot. I'd watch an entire show featuring any one of the characters in "Orange," and yet they're all in one show. The show takes us to task for our voyeuristic tendencies even as it deliverers life's hidden delights and anguishes on a silver platter. As Larry is revealing all the private conversations he's had with Piper on live radio, I was cringing at the betrayal of personal information and eager to learn about the consequences. It was all beautifully and subtly set up, and it was crushing in the best possible way. Larry seemed like a nice guy until he eagerly exploited Piper's conversations to further his writing career. What a dick move that otherwise sweet, sincere, and lovable guy pulled.


You can feel the sense of quiet concentration and even hope that the inmates felt as they turned into NPR. The whole point of the prison experience is being unheard and unseen by much of the world, being called by inmate rather than by name, but here was a respected media outlet taking the time to tell their stories. You could see it in their faces: It made them feel like they mattered. Then, you realized that Larry didn't know enough about her situation to protect her from her own words, or maybe at this point he didn't care anymore, but to be put in danger by her own fiance seemed like the lowest of blows.

They're all still weird, difficult, and messed up in their own distinct ways, but the prison is, ultimately, a community. By telling Larry such one-dimensional stories about them, Piper didn't just betray them as individuals, she betrayed everything they'd done as a group to forgive her transgressions and make her one of them. The NPR segment's ultimate impact was painful, but I love how there was a comedic element to the interview as well. There were some exceptional parodies of Ira Glass and This American Life. The interviewer wanted to have his cake and eat it too: He wanted credit for paying attention to marginalized women, but he also wanted to get his kicks by hearing about rape and lesbian sex.

He couched his questions in smart language and grew serious at the thought of the less fortunate, but all the while his entire approach was patronizing. He didn't care about these women as individuals or see them as adults with lives as complex and important as his own. As is the case with many of us watching the show, his interest in prison life contained many elements of excellent ironies that may have gone right over the heads of most viewers, but had me cracking up. His curiosity mirrors our own, and yet a little smug satisfaction that he was helping these women by telling their story. Of course, when "Orange" began, our attitudes toward these women couldn't have been much different from the radio host's. 

So, by the end of the show, you feel as though you have the right to care about these women because you get to know them so well. I would have said the same things about Crazy Eyes before we go to know her. But at that moment, my heart broke when I saw the betrayal of Crazy Eyes, or Suzanne, hearing herself described in the way she was by someone whom she loved. It hit me like a ton of bricks because by this point, I didn't want her to have to go through something so awful.


It's good to feel a little ashamed when our snap judgments turn out to be cruel. Piper was not only incredibly ashamed, she was now in danger. The community she joined won't forget this casual betrayal. And when she turned to Larry for answers, or comfort, or clarity, all she got was anger and pain. I didn't expect their conversation to land as hard as it did. Larry is one of the show's lighter and less interesting characters. Prison was destroying their relationship, so Larry, gripped by an understandable desire to lash out, tried to destroy the comfort that Piper and Alex had found together. He grew as a character, even as he was becoming an asshole.

In every single episode, Taylor Schilling is called upon to play a great range of emotions, dramatic and comedic, and I think it's safe to say that she's just crushing this role. Laura Prepon is similarly fantastic as Alex. Underneath the cool-girl exterior is a whole lot of pain and loneliness, and Prepon has done a wonderful job of subtly bringing those notes forward. Claudette hugging her old friend and Suzanne crying in her bunk have to be two of the show's most devastating moments. I love that this is a true ensemble and each character gets his or her moment in the sun.

"Orange is the New Black" is based on a memoir and remains faithful to reality in a way that opens up minds to look at the lives of women in the Litch. Thanks to great use of flashbacks, we come to understand how they came to be behind bars, though we don’t always sympathize with them. Sophia Burset, a former firefighter who turned to crime to pay for a sex change (and to buy the love of her son who was having difficulty dealing with his dad becoming his other mom), is lovable, smart, and caring in her life before prison, but she’s also learned the game within the prison walls and learned how to withhold sympathy to survive.

Even when "Orange is the New Black" makes big political or philosophical points, it does so with a light touch. After Taystee, a charming cut-up who cleans up her act to get parole, finally gets out, she soon returns. In the real world, she can’t get a job that pays enough for an apartment; she still owes $900 in “fees” to the prison, and she lives in an unsafe place like a dog on the avenue. “Everyone I know is poor, in jail, or gone. Don’t nobody ask ’bout how my day went… I know how to play it here,” It wasn't subtle at all, but she was genuinely sorry that she let her friend down and didn't make it on the outside. It's been done before in stories like this, but none has done it better.

I’m not sure why "Orange" is so fresh. The story of an upper-middle-class white woman’s incarceration in an upstate New York prison has many familiar components. I’ve watched every episode of "Oz." I’ve seen shows set in womens' prisons before. I’ve seen shows that find drama from the same source as "The Real World" type "reality" shows that take people who usually don’t mix, put them in close quarters, and wait for the sparks to fly. This could have been remarkably bad, but it wasn't. It's proof that even old ideas can be done again in fresh and interesting ways.



MALCOLM TRAVERS
Male Media Mind