Orange Is the New Black – Season 1 Review

Why do you always feel so inevitable to me?


So, I’ve just finished ‘Orange is the New Black‘ Season 1.

Everyone and their mothers recommended it to me. I’d never heard a bad word about it, numerous bloggers and content aggregators had only positive, bordering on fanatical things to say about it. Judging by my experience of it’s first season, it clearly aims to be more progressive than a lot of what’s big at the moment and I can see why so many are so drawn to it, if nothing else, it is the characters that are the making or breaking of OITNB.

I know, I know, I’m 2 years behind the rest of the planet, but, in my defence, I have been watching True Detective, Hannibal, Breaking Bad, Netflix’s other critically acclaimed original series House of Cards and this year’s Game of Thrones.

My shows 2015

Jenji Kohan’s female-led prison comedy-drama, adapted from Piper Kerman’s eponymous autobiography, Orange is the New Black, the show that almost everyone you will ever meet has fallen in love with, will not be joining those recently-mentioned monoliths of greatness at the crossroads of dignity and artistry any time soon, at least not if it continues like this.

That isn’t to say it’s not good, it is good, it’s even quite funny and engaging at times, but, in this now golden age of television drama, “good” isn’t good enough for the more discerning viewer. When a show strives to be seen as progressive, greatness HAS to be the goal, because it has to kick people’s asses, make them sit up and take it seriously.

Taylor Schilling leads the colourful ensemble of Orange is the New Black as Piper Chapman, a sheltered, privileged, 30-something white girl who is sentenced to 15 months in Litchfield Penitentiary, a minimum security women’s prison, for drug trafficking; a crime she committed with her ex-girlfriend, the Darwinian, acerbic, razor-tongued, Alex Vause. #VauseBoss

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Piper on the left, Alex on the right

Over the course of the first season, Piper is our “Trojan horse”, our way of getting into the prison and learning about the lives and motivations of the other (usually more interesting) inmates. On the outside is Larry Bloom, the mild-mannered writer who is otherwise dull and nebbish and is also Piper’s fiancé.

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Larry Bloom, Piper’s fiance, played by Jason Biggs

Piper is not interesting; she is naive, not especially smart as well as self-centred and a perpetual victim. It’s forgivable though, because the writers seem (inconsistently) aware of this and contrast Piper’s present, rookie-ish experience of the prison by devoting most episodes to the other inmates’ lives before the prison, as well as the reasons for their incarcerations. This is a good storytelling device, it gets you to sympathise with, or at least understand, the other women, not all of them pleasant, and with whom we’ve also been forcibly jailed.

I’m sure you’ve read on the internet, or heard from fans, that OITNB has a mostly female cast and notably features a LOT of lesbians lesbianing, a real life transsexual woman (MtF) (who is one of the more likeable characters) and ton of ethnic diversity. This sounds excellent, equal representation has found its frontrunner, amirite?
WRONG!

Episode 2

Despite being hailed as triumph for equality, I believe that it largely fails in its progressive agenda. Much like The L-Word and unlike The Wire, I feel that the show trivialises, stereotypes or overplays any race other than white, and any sexuality other than hetero, all in the name of a light-hearted tone.
As an aspiring writer and filmmaker, it brings my piss to a boil to know that Jenji Kohan and the other writers have gotten away with such mediocre character development and lazy writing.
I mean, let’s consider the characters; who they are, what they want, what they’re like.

> Early on, we meet “Taystee”, a loud, boisterous, sassy, big black woman, who with a cock of the eyebrow and a gyrating of the neck, says “mmmmmhm” a lot but is basically a pretty good person and a comic relief character. She is later set free (Episode 9 – “Fucksgiving”) and the scene that ensues is a heartfelt goodbye between her, the other inmates and her best friend Poussey. Almost no screen time is given to her life outside prison, and she re-offends so that she can return to prison an episode later. What was the point in her leaving?

> Poussey is also a loud, aggressive, sassy, black woman, who is also basically a pretty good person. Not to be confused with Watson who is basically the same but can run fast.

> When Taystee is freed from prison, she seems to be immediately replaced (what is this? The Walking Dead?) as Poussey’s friend by “Black Cindy”, who is also a relatively boisterous, sassy, big, black woman who ALSO says “mmmmmmmmhmmm” a lot and has the same hair as Taystee. I frequently found myself not knowing the difference.

Ms Claudette, Taystee, Poussey, Watson and Black Cindy

Ms Claudette, Taystee, Poussey, Watson and Black Cindy

So far, stellar characterisation, Jenji. I’m not done.

The prison also has its general Latina population, all of whom (apart from Daya, who is the most bland character on any show ever) are unwilling to integrate with the general population, speak to each other in Spanish when white people are about, are quite vicious, especially in regards to their own sexuality or families and have loads of kids and/or had children early on in their lives. The only two Hispanic men presented in the show so far are both aggressive, repugnant drug dealers.

In the show’s attempt to be multicultural, it comes off as very white and plays other races as novelties. I’m failing to see where OINTB could be described as “progressive”.

Maybe it’s in the presentation of the lesbians?

Nope, not there either. Apparently, like 90% of the women in Litchfield are lesbians, and I do not buy that proportion. I would hope that a series based on an actual person’s actual experiences in prison would at least try to avoid lurid sensationalism, and yet ALL of the lesbians on this how are portrayed as uncontrollably horny and very sexually aggressive. Even worse is the fact that the show trivialises lesbianism and plays it as a novelty, or a choice, or as a last resort.
Here, we have a show that overplays lesbianism so as to be deliberately provocative and titillating, and exaggerates racial stereotypes to save time on character development.
So, maybe it’s in the presentation of the men?
Again, no. The few men that feature in this are boring, pathetic or reprehensible or a combination of all three.
> Piper’s fiancé, Larry: helpless, dull, nebbish Jew character we’ve seen in every rom-com since Woody Allen.

> Prison guard John Bennett: He is a war veteran, missing limbs and he torn between his occupational duties and his star crossed, covert relationship with an inmate. You’d think that would be interesting? Nope – least interesting character in the show. He’s an edgeless safety cube with no positive or negative qualities.

an edgeless safety cube

an edgeless safety cube

> Prison Warden Caputo: A pathetic, greying, older bloke and a lecherous office masturbator who sports a walrus moustache and worries that it makes him look gay. These elements are played for comedic effect and they succeed, heis a funny character who isn’t that bad of a guy.

> Prison guard George Mendez: excellently played by Pablo Schreiber. For me, he is the Joffrey Baratheon of this show. Every scene he is in is filled with sexual tension of the worst kind; you are never sure what he is going to do next. Despite these positive qualities of the actor, the character is just completely despicable in his every action, all for his own sadistic enjoyment. He harasses the inmates at every turn, smuggles drugs into the prison and is directly responsible for the death of inmate Tricia Miller (Episode 10 – Bora, Bora, Bora). He is sometimes played for laughs and some of those times, it works, but overall, he’s just too horrible a person to feel comfortable having a laugh about. I’m so sure he’s going to rape someone.

> Officer/Councellor Sam Healy: Literally Principal Skinner. Starts the show a good man, who is weary from years of dealing with criminals and has a strained relationship with his wife who speaks little English. He gets on well with Piper and has respect for her intelligence and resourcefulness. THEN SUDDENLY, FOR NO GOOD REASON, HE BECOMES INCREDIBLY SPITEFUL TO PIPER TO THE POINT WHERE HE TURNS A BLIND EYE TO THE FACT THAT ANOTHER INMATE IS ABOUT TO TRY AND KILL HER. That kind of antagonism came out of nowhere and was an actually villainous thing to do.

Sam Healy, John Bennett, Joe Caputo, Luscheck, Mendez and Larry

Sam Healy, John Bennett, Joe Caputo, Luscheck, Mendez and Larry

ALL of this is so frustrating to me because so many of the main characters are boring, stereotypical or vile.
Season 1 is 13 1-hour episodes. In that time none of the stereotypes are meaningfully woven into the overall story of the show, or the season. Instead they exist in isolation, almost as comic relief. There is absolutely no reason or excuse for the writers to spend 13 hours under-developing characters, reinforcing negative stereotypes, pulling contrived situations out of their butts and jumping the shark every other episode. Which is my next beef.

I’ve never seen a show jump the shark faster than OITNB. Remember when I said that Piper’s had an ex called Alex Vause? Well, at the end of EPISODE 1 she is revealed to also be in the same prison as Piper. What are the chances? None. It didn’t happen in real life.
Piper is bisexual, the VauseBause is a lesbian and Piper hides Alex’s incarceration from Larry.
When has this ever worked out? From Episode 2 onwards, the whole season becomes a farcical “will they/won’t they”.

Larry finds out about Alex and he is worried. So he should be.
Spiteful Mr Healy sends piper to solitary confinement for “lesbianing” with Alex. It is in that 3×3 concrete cell that Piper realises the hell she’s in and promises herself to “be good, keep my head down, stay away from Alex and just do the rest of my sentence”. This is a defining moment for the character, for once, she realises she is to blame.
Then she gets released from solitary and wastes no time at all in dragging Alex to the chapel and fucking her on a rebellious impulse. What the hell happened? Did she forget about that promise to herself and her promise of marriage to her FIANCE? It makes no sense for this to have happened within the narrative. In fact, it only makes sense a scene that is literally FOR the viewers. Later on, Piper admits to a sexual relationship with Alex to Larry, and she has the gall to still play the victim. Following the ruination of her engagement, Alex tells Piper that she wants nothing to do with her; the smartest thing said by anyone in the whole season.
Alex Vause is cool, interesting, independent, smart and a self described “ruthless pragmatist” (President Underwood would be proud). It makes me mad that she isn’t the main character, because THAT show would be interesting.

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Which brings me to the final grievance that I will write about.

These women are IN PRISON. Some of the inmates are murderers, thieves, and drug pushers; others were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. How are these different levels of criminals mixing so freely? Why aren’t the murderers in a maximum-security prison? Especially the sociopathic religious fanatic Natalie “Pennsatucky” Doggett?

Pennsatucky brandishing a makeshift shiv in Episode 13

Pennsatucky brandishing a makeshift shiv in Episode 13

Too frequently did I find myself asking “how they having so much fun and freedom?”
I reiterate, they are in prison; their freedom has been taken from them and they now belong to the justice system. It makes no sense for murderers to just be walking around, holding yoga lessons and sermons. It makes no sense that these women are frequently allowed or are in range of potentially lethal or damaging objects. Furthermore, some of the inmates have YEARS-long sentences: Poussey is in for 6, Miss Claudette for 20, Sophia (the transsexual woman) for 4. Meanwhile, others have months: Piper for 15 months, Morello for 34 months and another for like 9months.
How am I supposed to take “months” seriously when I’ve been raised on a diet of films where criminals (normally male) put get put away for years, sometimes decades? Months sounds like a walk in the park. It doesn’t make me care about their plight that much, knowing they’ll be out within the year.
Honestly, women’s prison looks like a bloody good time.

I don’t hate Orange Is the New Black, it just makes me mad that it isn’t a better show and disappointed that almost everyone I know who has watched it has said it was brilliant, thereby implicitly recommending it to me. This is the kind of show that would have been on E4 or Channel 4 and I would have skipped right past it.

I’m not a quitter though; I will see it to the end. Hopefully it develops and becomes great.

Not everything has to be arty like Hannibal, or a dark ouroboros like True Detective or complex and contrastingly simple like Breaking Bad, but my god, Jenji Kohan, try a little harder.

P.S. Red is cool and I hope to see more of her.


Episodes: 13 (+Seasons 2 and 3 with 13 Episodes each)

Genre: Comedy / Drama

Original Channel: Netflix

So what do you think? Have a think and let us know in the comments section below.


– Mat S

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