I’m bringing orange back.
Orange is the New Black, just by its existence, has already earned a place in TV history. Debuting not on a network but on Netflix live streaming, the show represents a whole new way of watching television. All 13 episodes of the first season were available at once, to facilitate the Netflix audience’s appetite for binge watching. It’s likely that folks in the future will look back on these Netflix originals as the moment when everything changed in entertainment.
Now that Orange in the New Black is on Blu-ray, the discussion becomes less about how the series was delivered, and more on whether it deserves its strong word-of-mouth recommendations.
Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling, The Lucky One) is going to jail, from a drug money trafficking charge years earlier. Separated from her fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs, American Pie) for fifteen months, Piper tries to adapt to the strange new world of a minimum security women’s penitentiary, and the various personalities and interpersonal conflicts she runs into there. Chief among these are her old flame and criminal co-conspirator Alex Voss (Laura Prepon, That ’70s Show) and increasingly unhinged religious fanatic Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning, Sons of Anarchy).
Right from the start, Orange is the New Black makes it clear that part of the show’s mission is to subvert the many prison movie and women-in-prison movie tropes that it can. Taking a low-key, down-to-Earth approach, stuff like riots, fights, and clanking metal bars are either downplayed or gone. Other, kinkier clichés of the genre, like group showers or same-sex relationships, are subverted in often clever ways. The show is at its best when exploring the oddities of prison life.
It’s a minimum security prison, so it’s set up like a big dorm rather than individual cells, with the punishment being merely you can’t leave. This guides a lot of tension on the show. If there are two people who are in conflict, there’s no getting away from that conflict, because everyone’s under the same roof, all day every day. Instead of fists and sharp objects, the women fight with their gossip and innuendo—although fists and sharp objects do eventually make their appearance. The hushed, whispered conversations in hallways, the steely glances across cafeteria tables, these are the moments that give the show its drive.
Although it has its moments, Orange is the New Black is often more quirky than it is intense drama, and humor is a big part of the series as well. This is thanks mostly to the larger ensemble cast. Taystee (Danielle Brooks) is a fan favorite, a larger-than-life woman who is the life of the party. Nicky (Natasha Lyonne, But I’m a Cheerleader) is Piper’s de facto guide to prison life, and she’s always around to comment sarcastically on whatever’s happening. Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba, Sing Along) appears at first to be a menacing villain type, but soon becomes sympathetic and even humorous.
Then there’s Red, played by the Captain herself, Kate Mulgrew (Star Trek: Voyager). Red runs the kitchen—because of budget cuts, the prisoners do all the jobs—and she’s the first main conflict Piper runs into once on the inside. Everyone fears Red, and Piper crosses her. This leads to a lot of bad things happening to Piper, and her conflict with Red is the first big obstacle she faces in jail. Casting is key here, and Mulgrew brings it as Red. You really do believe that this lady runs the place, and everyone knows not to tick her off. Mulgrew is in full-on “look how much fun I’m having” mode, and it’s infectious, so the audience can’t help but get in on the fun as well.
The male gender sometimes doesn’t come off as well. The prison is run by Mr. Healy (Michael Harney, Weeds) and Mr. Caputo (Nick Sandow, Swimfan), both of whom have, shall we say, uncomfortable attitudes towards women. This is often played for laughs, rather than showing how and why these guys came to be emotionally damaged. A guard known only as “Pornstache” (Pablo Schreiber, Lords of Dogtown) is full of macho bluster, and he much better captures the balance, being both creepy-towards-women and hysterically funny. That leaves the poor hapless Larry, stuck at home away from all this, to represent all the good guys. Although Larry is told over and over not to get sucked into all the prison drama, he does. With his bewilderment over the whole thing, Larry in many ways represents the audience, as an outsider looking in at all the craziness in Piper’s life.
That’s where we circle back around to our protagonist Piper. It’s here that the show’s creators are playing a very interesting, very sneaky game with viewer expectations. As the show begins, Piper is the girl next door. She’s such an ordinary person that we can put ourselves in her shoes and ask what we’d do in her situation. Then, the tension between her and Alex takes a turn, and we ask whether that’s something Piper would do. Then, we learn more about Piper’s backstory and the first time she met Larry, and it dawns on us that the Piper we met at the start was not the real Piper. She’s not the girl next door, she’s trouble. In the season finale, tension builds and builds before this part of Piper’s personality explodes out of her. The pieces have been so carefully put into place that it’s not out of character when this happens. Instead, it’s revealing the inner self of a character we only thought we knew. This leaves us with huge anticipation as to what’s going to happen next, and how much farther Piper will go.
I haven’t read author Piper Kerman’s memoir on which the series is based, so I can’t comment on how much of this really happened versus how much is TV fiction. That said, a lot of what we see stretches credulity. One storyline is an election, with the prisoners running for council positions, to speak to the warden on behalf of the populace. The point is made that the election is really an excuse to keep the prisoners busy, but it’s really the show’s writers’ cheap excuse to manufacture some drama, and to bring characters directly in conflict with one another.
Similarly, a “forbidden fruit” romance strikes up between prisoner Diaz (Dascha Polanco) and rookie guard Bennett (Matt McGorry, Thursday). Their initial secret flirtations were fun and interesting at first, but then it gets into ridiculous “soap opera” theatrics later in the season. I can buy that these two would make incredibly bad decisions—bad decisions are what usually lands a person in prison—but their constant protestations of true love for each other were far too over-the-top, given the quirky, low-key nature of the rest of the plotlines.
Shot with a low budget, Orange is the New Black does not have a lot of flashy cinematography, but the Blu-ray nonetheless has a clean picture, with vibrant colors and natural skin tones. Audio also shines, especially when the occasional pop song kicks in. For extras, there are a handful of low-substance audio commentaries, four behind-the-scenes featurettes, and a gag reel.
The shows that have taken off with huge popularity on Netflix have one key ingredient in common—their addictive nature. When viewers marathon multiple episodes at once, it’s because they can’t wait to see what’ll happen next. Orange is the New Black has that same quality. When the season finale ended, I wanted to watch the next new episode right away, and that’s one of the highest compliments I can give a show.
Not Guilty verdicts are the new orange.