Friday, July 26, 2013

Orange is the New Black: Not Your Father’s Prison Series

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on July 26, 2013. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Vicky Jeudy, Taylor Schilling (centre) and Dascha Polanco on Netflix's Orange is the New Black

July has been a good month for Netflix. On July 18th, the online streaming service made television history when it received its first ever Emmy nominations, nine for the Kevin Spacey dark political drama House of Cards (including Most Outstanding Drama) and three for its much anticipated reboot of Arrested Development. Much e-Ink has been spilled in recent months on the minor televisual revolution that Netflix has sparked with its recent spate of original programming, but both nominated shows launched with a built-in audience, boasting the Hollywood heft of Spacey and Arrested Development’s longstanding cult following respectively. But with the premiere of Jenji Kohan’s new prison comedy-drama Orange is the New Black, Netflix enters a new era, with a series that seems to have earned its critical (and popular) acclaim entirely on its own terms. Two weeks before its premiere on July 11th, Netflix renewed the series for a second season. With only a few familiar faces, strong writing, and an innovative narrative, Orange is the New Black is simply great television however it comes to our screens.

Adapted by Kohan (the creator of Showtime’s Weeds) from Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison (Spiegel & Grau, 2010), the New York Times bestselling memoir by Piper Kerman, the series is set in the fictional Litchfield Prison, a women’s minimum security federal penitentiary. Taylor Schilling (from NBC’s short-lived medical drama Mercy) stars as Piper Chapman, who finds herself sentenced to 15 months in prison for crimes she committed 10 years earlier. Piper (or Chapman, as she becomes known as in Litchfield) is joined in prison by a remarkable array of female characters, meaty roles for actresses of all ages and backgrounds. The range of female and minority characters alone would single the series out, but there is little that is gimmicky or derivative about the show.

Kate Mulgrew and Michelle Hurst
Television has seen prison dramas before – from HBO’s groundbreaking Oz to Fox’s conspiracy-driven Prison Break – but from the start Orange Is the New Black is a prison show of an entirely different type. Though it does ramp up to a bit of a ‘big plot’ in the season’s closing episodes, Orange is first and foremost a character-driven show. Over the course of its 13-episode first season, it dodges many of the missteps these kinds of stories are prone to: its drama is never melodramatic, the lives of its characters aren’t glamourized, and its comedy refuses slapstick even as it approaches delicious absurdism. Notable among the starring cast are Laura Prepon (That 70s Show) as Alex Vause, Piper’s former girlfriend and the drug trafficker who lead her to the life of crime a decade earlier; Michelle Hurst as Miss Claudette, Piper’s Haitian-born roommate who is among the most feared of the prison’s inmates; and Kate Mulgrew (Star Trek: Voyager) as ‘Red’ Reznikov, the uncompromising Russian who runs the prison kitchen and serves as de facto prison leader and mother figure. Mulgrew’s take on ‘Red’ is a revelation, and signals in itself everything that is so innovative and entertaining about Orange is the New Black.

To Piper’s surprise, for example, fellow inmates are unexpectedly helpful and welcoming to the new girl on her first day, sharing advice and offering supplies. (“Here's some toilet paper – you gotta take it with you.") But after being handed a much-needed toothbrush, Piper is informed casually by a white inmate that “We look out for our own,” adding – upon seeing Piper’s aghast expression – “It’s tribal, not racist.” (Pronouncing that last word like it is in itself a feature of class privilege.) In her first phone call to her fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs), Piper wryly sums up her early days: “I'm wearing granny panties and I've only spoken to white people.” The race and class politics of ‘the Litch’ are familiar and foreign at the same time, like a hellish distortion of high school lunchroom politics, where small decisions like where you sit on the first day have repercussions that will resound for months into the future. The prison-as-high-school analogy is in fact self-consciously embraced by the inmates as well, though if you've survived high school you know the comparison does little to minimize the prison's everyday horror. In her book, Kerman’s lawyer sums up prison (and perhaps high school) succinctly: "chickenshit rules enforced by chickenshit people.” The (mostly male) guards run their tiny kingdoms like petty dictators – taking liberties with every body search – and prison counsellors seems like vice-principals, dispensing advice and punishment with the same indifferent, patronizing air. "I want you to understand,” Piper’s counsellor Healey (Michael J. Harney, NYPD Blue) tells her, “you do not have to have lesbian sex."

Laura Prepon in Orange is the New Black
Nothing is simple here. The rules of prison aren’t as straightforward as Piper imagined – and not just because its internal black market runs mainly on candy instead of cigarettes. Early on, fellow inmate and former-junkie Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) asks what Chapman did to end up in prison. Piper responds incredulously, "Aren't you not supposed to ask that question? I read that you're not supposed to ask that.” The real rules of the prison universe are as unwritten as the rules of the series. It’s a learning curve that parallels the one the viewers travel throughout the season, negotiating pre-conceptions and prejudices about incarceration. First you forget everything you think you know about prison shows, and then, painfully, you remember everything you know. An early storyline involving a misplaced screwdriver, for example, is marked by an unmistakable sense of dread, as the worst of our imaginations gets the better of us. Though Kohan has read enough Chekhov to not let anything ever go unused (and eventually the screwdriver does reappear), that episode goes a long way to remind us that Orange is the New Black is not your father’s prison drama. The initial atmosphere of imminent foreboding thankfully lessens as the season progresses, and as the environment and the characters become more fleshed out. As the tension becomes less diffused and more interpersonal, Piper’s sense of control (and our own) develops. Still, understandably it never fully dissipates. Prison can sometimes be used as a metaphor for the difficult road to self-discovery, but it is – the series uncomfortably reminds viewers and more painfully also Chapman herself – also prison.

The series rarely takes the obvious route. Perhaps not surprising in a show about prison, this is a world in which actions have consequences, but not often the ones you will expect. The prison population – the Bible-thumping abortion terrorist, the street-kid-turned-junkie, even the power-hungry Corrections Officer – may seem at the start to be stock characters, but that tells us more about Piper’s early experiences of them as it does about who they are. The show’s comfortable use of flashbacks is worth noting in particular. The flashbacks are not a reminder that “no-one is who they appear to be” in a Lost or Twin Peaks sense, but how we come to understand these characters in a profoundly human way.

The racialized diversity of drug cultures is another theme that comes out in the flashbacks. The contrasts between Alex and Piper’s jet-setting life with an international cartel and the kitchen-based drug production in the Spanish ghettos is striking. Mixing elements of the universes of Breaking Bad and Weeds within a single story is surprisingly effective in making subtle and not-so-subtle points about contemporary America, especially in an era when the majority of incarcerated Americans come from minority communities, on drug offenses both large and small. 

Jason Biggs and Taylor Schilling in Orange is the New Black
In the end, however, it is the characters themselves who are the real substance of the series. A few of the minor characters are particular standouts, individuals who despite relatively brief screen time live on even when they move to the background. Watch especially for Lea DeLaria as ‘Big Boo’ and relative newcomer Uzo Aduba as an inmate everyone calls ‘Crazy Eyes’. Still, not all of the stories the show tells are equally successful. One of the first season’s weak spots come from Piper’s fiancé Larry. Biggs’ scenes with Schilling are quite poignant and real, but an early masturbation-themed storyline does little to help viewers forget Jason Biggs’ American Pie beginnings. I’m as eager as anyone for Biggs to transcend his sex comedy past, and he won me over long ago for his part in Woody Allen’s woefully underappreciated Anything Else, but there was something awkward and mildly embarrassing about his early episodes here.

Taylor Schilling is strong as the show’s narrative if not actually moral anchor. Chapman is an alienating and sometimes unlikeable character, but Schilling pulls it off with admirable confidence. Piper’s character is crucial to our experience: she is, after all, our entry into this world. But as the season progresses, the show admirably risks playing with our sympathies for her and for the decisions she makes, both in prison and in the years leading up to it. One of the lessons we learn over the course of the season is the power and the arbitrariness of forming a sense of self based on the opinions of others. As Chapman slowly discovers that perhaps she isn’t the “nice blonde lady” she imagines herself to be, we watch her push back – both against the feelings of perceived moral turpitude (as her friends and family begin to negotiate the details of her younger self) and just as vehemently the candy-coated upper middle-class image of her she feels Larry is peddling in his writing on the outside. Piper’s moral authority is shaky at best – and we, like her, are compelled by circumstances to come to new conclusions about who she is based on her actions, past and present.

Next time you log into Netflix, take a time out from your off-season revisitation of early episodes of The West Wing, and click on Orange is the New Black. If you are usually wary of prison dramas (as I confess I have long been), it would be easy to underestimate the series. Crafted in a way that is served well by the Netflix model – you may need to decide in advance if you are going to binge-watch or schedule it – Orange is the New Black is intermittently hilarious, horrifying, and compassionate. Its unvarnished storytelling and the unexpected humanity of its colourful characters just may make it one of the best new shows of the summer.