Netflix has absolutely outdone itself this year. Even by only naming three shows, TV lovers everywhere will understand what I mean: House Of Cards, Arrested Development and Orange Is The New Black.
House Of Cards had Kevin Spacey, a double Academy Award winning actor. Arrested Development had three previous seasons and a cult following. Orange Is The New Black came out of nowhere.
Orange Is The New Black is based on the real life story of Piper Kerman, who served 13 months in a women’s prison for her role in a drug ring ten years earlier and then wrote a memoir about it. This setting is obviously full of potential for an eclectic mix of characters – in race and background, if mostly not in gender – and an exploration of the power of all sorts of things including corruption and friendship. The impressive thing is that the show, whose ensemble cast is filled with a lot of complete newcomers, got everything so right when there were so many difficult and touchy subjects to include.
One of the most important characters in Piper’s journey is Alex Vause, the person who got Piper caught up in the drug ring in the first place when she was her girlfriend, the person who named Piper, resulting in her prison stay ten years on, and the person who is now one of the women keeping Piper company in prison. As you can imagine, there’s a lot to this relationship and its nuances are tackled excellently. Other important and complicated characters include Red, the powerful inmate in charge of the kitchen, and her unlikely accomplice, the corrections officer “Pornstache” Mendez.
Non-convicts often wonder about what goes on relationship-wise within a prison setting. OITNB plays the inevitable lesbian encounters for laughs initially, but it soon makes you realise how important and potentially heartbreaking these relationships are, as emotions seem to be multiplied in such an enclosed space. The speed with which Piper and Alex go from hating each other to sex to love to hate again is quite something, especially when you remember that Piper has an important man in her life outside prison too, just goes to show how heightened everything can become in such a limited environment; the emotions between Nicky and Morello (who is in a similar romantic situation to Piper) also prove this, as does the impact Piper’s rejection has on Suzanne (or Crazy Eyes).
There are so many rumours about inmates that it is a privilege every time we see flashbacks based around one character during an episode so we can see the real them; these are particularly poignant for Miss Claudette, who is surrounded by questions of murder, plus transsexual Sophia, and Tricia, the young homeless junkie. Even after making these discoveries, there is still a plethora of characters just waiting to be explained and exposed in the next season; there’s a seemingly almost unlimited resource of stories here. Some of these characters are totally different between their real world and prison personas, which lends possibilities of being even more complex.
Among all of this, the prison’s corrections officers are just as essential to the story as the inmates, providing opportunities for corruption, forbidden love (Bennett and Daya’s storyline is one of my favourites! So many stolen glances and so much drama!), and so much more. Counsellor Healy’s surprising arc only goes to show how those in power can easily manipulate based on their own personal subjectivity.
These complex relationships, inner feelings and strange motivations all work so well because of the writing: it never feels forced, but is instead totally natural. It’s also completely witty and true, even in the moments that must have been tough to get right. Without fantastic writing, the actors’ efforts would have been fruitless, but the whole package comes together.
What makes the series even better is its bravery in fronting a show with so many women: it’s just not seen very often still, and when it is it’s usually in a fluffy romantic comedy style piece that is aimed solely at females. Orange Is The New Black has made feminists happy as well as TV fans both hardcore and casual, and that’s an achievement that is very rare indeed.