Film & Television

The Pros and Cons of ‘Orange is the New Black’

ORANGE

There is much humor in the series (awards shows don’t quite know where it should fall when it comes to nominations), but it’s the human drama that is so engaging—and which makes for such excellent television. Orange is seriously fine work, and with it (and with House of Cards and a handful of others), Netflix is raising the bar for television networks much like HBO did 15 years ago with The Sopranos.

For its remarkable cast, writing and direction, OITNB attracted critical acclaim from day one. Scoring a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes (which compiles scores from critics across the country), it was hailed as “a sharp mix of black humor and dramatic heft, with interesting characters and an intriguing flashback structure.” The second season earned 97%, with a consensus that with its “talented ensemble cast bringing life to a fresh round of serial drama, Orange Is the New Black’s sophomore season lives up to its predecessor’s standard for female-led television excellence.” The third and current season earned 94%; “Thanks to its blend of potent comedy and rich character work, Orange is the New Black remains a bittersweet pleasure in its third season.” Essentially straight A’s across the board. If there’s a shark at Litchfield, it hasn’t been jumped yet.

The first season was the closest to Kerman’s book. It really focused on Piper’s journey, her fears, shock and eventual acceptance of life in the prison system. She made friends; she made enemies. She learned to negotiate the commissary, the dining hall and the showers. She balanced her life outside Litchfield (shell-shocked family, supportive fiancé) with her new world. And, she was reunited with her charismatic ex, the woman who got her into the mess in the first place. The second season broadened the story and we learned more about the other inmates, as well as the guards and prison administration. Vee, a truly terrifying villain was introduced, played with relish by Lorraine Toussaint, and race lines that already existed at the prison became deadly dangerous.

In the third and most current season, the various back stories become even richer. There are many roads to Litchfield, but the most common are poverty, substance abuse and loving the wrong man. As in the two earlier seasons, there is no shying away from the ugliest aspects of prison life: violence, rape, mental illness and the anguish of leaving your children behind, destined to follow in your footsteps. Kohan, with Kerman as an executive consultant and writer, are also indicting the penal system in no uncertain terms. An important plot line throughout the season is the privatization of the prison. Whenever the inmates (or the audience) assume things can’t get worse. . . they do.

Besides rave reviews as entertainment, Orange has generated heated debate about the reality—or un-reality— of its depiction of prison. Catherine Cleary Wolters, the “real” Alex Vause (Nora Jansen in the book), has even written a rebuttal memoir called Out of Orange. But I wonder whether the focus is on the show’s veracity is appropriate. The series may be based (loosely) on one woman’s experience, but it doesn’t pretend to be a documentary.

Our prison system is deeply flawed and the statistics surrounding women’s institutions in specific are disturbing. According to The Sentencing Project, an organization that supports research and advocacy for prison reform, the number of women in prison increased by 646% between 1980 and 2010, rising from 15,118 to 112,797. Including women in local jails, there are now more than 205,000 women incarcerated. Many are serving long sentences for non-violent drug-related crime. And 62% have minor children. Regardless of factual accuracy, season three’s opening episode “Mother’s Day” is simply heartbreaking.

The women’s prison system warrants more attention and definitely needs reform. Meanwhile, OITNB is a step in the right direction. By making these women (not just yuppie Piper, but the crazy quilt of Taystee, Daya, Red, Big Boo, Lolly, Pennsatucky, Poussey and Morello) sympathetic people, they become individuals with pasts and futures. The L.A. Times made an educated guess that about four million people watch Orange (Netflix doesn’t release viewership stats), many more than would see a more literal documentary. And in Kohan and her team’s inspired hands, the effect is personal, emotional and lasting.

That’s not a bad place for change to start.

All three seasons of Orange is the New Black are available on Netflix. You can purchase Kerman’s book and the first two seasons of the series at Amazon.com.

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