October 8, 2013

Netflix Forays Into Prison With Orange is the New Black

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As Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling),  Orange is the New Black’s central protagonist, gets out of her prison shower, Taystee (Danielle Brooks) remarks, “You got them TV titties. They stand up on they own, all perky and everything.” As Piper rushes away, Taystee finishes her thought, telling Piper to “get the fuck out of my way.”

This is the interaction that starts off Netflix’s new original series — and it properly sums up what the show does right and how it falls short. In this scene, Piper has just gotten to prison and is incredibly worried about being raped. However, this first scene presents prison rape as a sort of joke — Taystee’s comments on Piper’s body seem harmless, platonic and jocular, rather than sexually aggressive.

So begins day one of  Orange is the New Black, which tells the story of Piper Chapman, a thirty-something woman who seems to have her life together before she is suddenly sentenced to serve time in the fictional Litchfield Correctional Facility in upstate New York for 15 months. Her charge? Transporting drug money a decade earlier per the request of her ex-girlfriend, Alex (Laura Prepon). Part of what makes the show so entertaining is that neither Piper nor Alex monopolize the show. Each episode features a different prisoner’s backstory and aims to explain, or at least imply, how each person ended up involved in crime. Featuring a myriad of different races, sexual orientations, socio-economic backgrounds and temperaments of the mostly-female characters, in many respects,  Orange is the New Black is a breakthrough. Still, the show falls short when it brushes over the complexities of what drives people toward crime, and as a result, the backstories tend to be rather one-note — each one aims to invoke some level of sympathy for the characters rather than pointing out the consequences of their actions, you know, besides the obvious one. Not one backstory truly portrays the criminals as bad people, but rather as people who were dealt an unlucky hand.

Still, once the viewer can accept this kind of lack of complexity, the backstories are varied enough in their settings, crimes and racial and societal factors that they remain perfect for binge watching, as is suitable with the Netflix model of putting a full season online at once. The show does make up for this at some points, and gains some complexity when it explores the characters’ lives once they are inside the prison.

Of course, the plot doesn’t just take place inside prison and in the past. In a parallel storyline, the show follows Piper’s fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs), along with her friends and family on the outside. Larry’s character changes every episode. In one scene, he will be particularly likable and admirable — and the next, annoying, untalented and childish. However, he does serve an important function in understanding Piper’s transformation and showing the growing disconnect that occurs between people in prison and those in the “real world.” Over time Larry and Piper’s Thoreau-ian brother, Cal (Michael Chemus), develop a relationship which becomes increasingly entertaining to watch as Cal offers insight into what it means to be an ‘outsider.’

Yet, similarly to the backstories, the storyline outside the prison feels a bit sugar-coated. While the show does explore the troubles of Piper and Larry’s deteriorating relationship, it does so in a pretty teenage-dramatized fashion. Larry complains, he masturbates, he talks (worries) about how Piper used to be a lesbian, he tells his story to anyone who will listen and he cries only once. Larry’s behavior does not seriously portray the impact of what it means to be a family member or loved one of a prisoner, but more accurately, as the show will explore, what it means to be in a difficult long-distance relationship.

All in all,  Orange is the New Black is really enjoyable. The writing is smart, the stories are simple but sweet and the characters are almost all lovable. Red (Kate Mulgrew), Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) and George “Pornstache” Mendez (Pablo Schreiber) particularly deliver great performances.

So the trick to enjoying this show is to take it for what it is — a teenage drama that just so happens to be set in one of the most politically and socially charged settings you can think of. You will enjoy it thoroughly, thanks to its quick wit and lovable nature. Most importantly, it is incredibly easy to binge on since whole first season is up on Netflix — you’ll be in and out of prison within a week!

Emily Kling is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].