I love the Netflix-model of releasing TV shows. Being a binge-viewer, having entire, BRAND NEW, series of TV shows hit Netflix all in one go suits my obsessive nature down to the ground. I have worked my way through House of Cards (which I loved), then got over-excited for the new Arrested Development (which was ultimately disappointing), fought my way through (the pretty-awful) Hemlock Grove, but somehow missed the release of their latest offering, Orange is the New Black. There hadn’t been the same hype as that surrounding the return of the Bluths, so it almost slipped under my radar. Thankfully Netflix recommendations steered me in the right direction, so I was introduced to by far the best Netflix original series to date.
The story is based on a book by Piper Kerman (Chapman in the series) about the 15 months she spent in a women’s prison. We join Piper as she says goodbye to her friends and fiancee (played by Jason Biggs, sans pies) ready to face time earned from smuggling drug money for her girlfriend some 10 years earlier. The Piper we meet (played with verve by Taylor Schilling) is an uptight, health-obsessed, W.A.S.P. who only shops with canvas bags and goes on regular fad diets, insisting on her reluctant (male) fiancee’s participation. What unravels over the course of the 13 episodes is a fascinating and funny take on how a nice, well-off white girl ended up in a women’s prison, and how she survived her time there.
Piper’s emotional journey over the series is brilliantly portrayed, veering from being likeable girl-next-door, to bitchy pack animal, to isolated and lost and to… well, that would be telling.
What makes this a stand-out for Netflix is the great cast of supporting characters, whose back-stories are carefully interwoven through various episodes, revealing both their crimes and their emotional baggage. There is Crazy-eyes, seemingly the predatory lesbian that prison-nightmares are made of, who takes an aggressive shine to Piper, but then reveals there is more to her story than a hackneyed cliche. Red, the Russian matriarch who rules the prison’s kitchen with an iron fist, but clucks around her “daughters” like a mother hen, (who has a brilliant side-plot seeking the elusive Litchfield chicken). Not to forget the enigmatic Miss Claudette, Piper’s sometime bunk-mate, who has been in prison so long, no-one really knows why she’s there. Add to that characters like the repellent guard “Pornstache”, over-the-top Taystee, and feisty sister-to-all Nicky, and you have a brilliant ensemble to carry the drama along.
As well as antics within the prison walls we are also treated to a look at how Piper’s friends and family get along without her. The aforementioned fiancee finally starts his writing career, but with perhaps some ill-chosen subject matter. Her brother (who is somewhat of scene-stealer), finds himself no longer the family black-sheep and has to adjust to his new role as the “good” sibling, despite living “100 miles from civilisation”.
Then there is Alex Vause (the gorgeous Laura Prepon). Vixen, ex-drug-dealer and Piper’s ex-girlfriend, who finds herself serving prison-time with her ex-lover. What should have been a theoretically easy, heads-down-and-get-on-with-it, prison sentence becomes a tangled web of drama for Piper.
The series is genuinely very funny, balanced with some soap-opera-esque story-lines and some well-written and well-observed drama, which all combine to create a much deeper piece than it might first have appeared.
As the title alludes, issues of race (or tribe as the prison describes it) and sexuality are always at the fore, as is the inevitable commentary on the penal system and it’s relative successes. The end result is a surprisingly cerebral mash-up of humour, social commentary, pathos and a look at what makes us who we are.
Well worth 13 hours of anyone’s time.
5 out of 5