Brilliance Behind Bars
Orange is the New Black has just the heat to turn the series world upside down, writes Hank Stuever
Two years ago, I took the train from Washington to Staunton in Virginia, US, to go to a wedding. The woman sitting next to me was from Maine, and she was on her way to report for a relatively short prison sentence (her crime was embezzlement, I seem to recall), at the same federal prison in West Virginia “where Martha Stewart went,” she bragged, the way freshmen talk about their college choices. Once in a while, I wonder how it all worked out for her.
If you know anything about the American penal system, then you know it was probably not the calm retreat she had hoped for. As made perfectly clear in Jenji Kohan’s magnificent and thoroughly engrossing new series Orange is the New Black (premiering on Wednesday at 9pm on M-Net Edge (DStv channel 102), prison is still the pits. But it is also filled with the entire range of human emotion and stories, all of which are brought vividly to life in a world where a stick of gum could ignite either a romance or a death threat.
Based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, the series follows a fresh-faced woman from Brooklyn (she’s launching a line of artisanal lotion) who is arrested for her connection to an international drug operation. What happened, your honour, was this: A decade ago, Piper was in a lesbian relationship and shuttled a large sum of money to Europe for her girlfriend who worked for a cartel. Someone has named her in an indictment, and before she knows it, Piper is sentenced to 15 months in prison.
Orange is the New Black feels like Netflix’s first real home run since it famously entered the scripted-series biz. I realise some people couldn’t get enough of the contorted House of Cards when it premiered, and that the Arrested Development niche is still dizzy from their group binge last May, but Orange is the first series in which I’d almost insist that viewers upgrade to streaming service and come along for television’s seemingly inevitable future-delivery method.
Kohan also created Showtime’s sprawling drug and fractured-family saga Weeds, and Orange is the New Black has some of that same comi-tragic feel to it, with a whole lot more depth. Once Piper (Taylor Schilling, doing a perfectly naive little bird) is behind bars, we are introduced to a harsh, yet complex array of female characters.
Having bid her boyfriend Larry (Jason Biggs) a tearful goodbye (“Promise you’re not watching Mad Men without me,” she begs him, later), Piper quickly wises up and learns to navigate the distrustful exchanges that form her new life. She’s completely thrown to discover that one of the inmates in her wing is the ex-girlfriend (That ’70s Show’s Laura Prepon) who got her in all this trouble to begin with.
Watching the show, one begins to realise that all the good parts for women truly have been kept locked up somewhere, now, here they all are, free (in at least one sense) to be portrayed. Within the first six episodes, they are expertly and fully sketched, textured and realised: Latinas, lesbians, an activist nun, a fireman who transitioned into a woman, a housekeeper-turned-murderer, a Russian inmate (Kate Mulgrew) who runs the kitchen and serves Piper a used-tampon sandwich out of initial spite.
(Warning: The show is full of gross and intentionally unsettling moments; it is a prison, after all. With any luck, the sandwich will be the worst of it.)
Together, these women and their stories form a sad and strange tapestry, but Orange is the New Black is by no means a female Oz. And although there are unwanted advances from unctuous guards (including Pablo Schreiber as Officer Mendez, aka “Pornstache”), it has little use for our culture’s exploitative and outdated Caged Heat-style excitement for the notion of women doing time together.
As in Weeds, Kohan and her writers are obsessed with the million little details that form a believable and unembellished realm. Each episode contains fascinating revelations about the prison world, almost like a documentary report from within. – Washington Post
Meet the inmates of Orange is the New Black
Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling)
The lead character, Piper is the entitled, yuppie, NPR-listening New Yorker who you will either love or hate. She actually read books about going to prison, something she tells her fellow inmates, who laugh at her for it. She’s whiny, irritating and as much as you sometimes do feel sorry for her, she turns you against her because of how she treats other people. It gets her into trouble almost immediately. Serving a 15-month sentence for her involvement in a drug-trafficking ring, Piper will need to toughen up if she wants to survive the whole sentence.
Taystee and Poussey (Danielle Brooks and Samira Wiley)
The comic relief on the show, Taystee and Poussey are the best friends who make prison life bearable. From jokes about Upper East Side white women who listen to NPR, and their travels, to battle raps with fellow inmates. Their one-liners are legendary and without them, the show would be a bit depressing. They “work” at the prison library as they are book-smart, but also very street-smart.
Nichols and Morello (Natasha Lyonne and Yael Stone)
Nichols is a recovering heroine addict and Morello is love-sick and thinks The West Side Story is her life. They are lovers, even though Morello swears she can’t be cheating on her fiancé Christopher anymore. Nichols is close to the prison’s resident godmother Red, regarding her as her mother. She also keeps Piper in check whenever her entitlement surfaces. Morello drives the inmates around and is rarely seen without her red lipstick.
Red (Kate Mulgrew)
The godmother of Litchfield Prison, Red runs the prison like her house. As head chef, everyone wants to be on her good side, lest they want to be starved, as our lead finds out soon enough on her first day in prison.
While most of the inmates fear her, she is still loved by many and is appreciated for running the kitchen well. She has one nemesis – CO Mendez, aka Pornstache. Red feels powerless only when she is being taunted by Mendez.
Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox)
The groundbreaking role of Sophia, a transgender inmate, is one that has led the show to many accolades. Sophia is the prison’s hairdresser and keeps everyone pretty. But she also has her problems: her son won’t accept her as a woman and her wife cannot cope with her husband in prison – plus she is dealing with the prison taking away her hormones. She strikes up a friendship with a nun in prison and theirs is one of the most interesting relationships of the show.
Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba)
Like her name states, Suzanne is nicknamed Crazy Eyes because her bulging eyes make her look crazy. She’s in love with Piper and calls her Dandelion, even writing her poems. She even threw pie for Piper when she had a problem with her former lover Alex Vause, which shocks and also pleases Piper. But she does some extreme things when Piper tells her she is not her prison wife.
Larry Bloom (Jason Biggs)
Piper’s fiancé Larry is a writer who uses Piper’s prison sentence as a way to make some money, including getting a column in The New York Times and interviews on NPR. He cannot deal with knowing that Piper’s ex lover Alex is in prison with her. Like Piper, he’s irritating and entitled, and their relationship will be tested in the course of the series.
Alex Vause (Lauren Prepon)
Alex is Piper’s ex-lover who got her involved in drug-trafficking. When Piper finds out that Alex is in the prison with her, she cannot handle it and asks Larry to find out if Alex ratted her out. In the course of the series, she reveals she’s still in love with Piper. Will Piper get back together with her and cheat on Larry?
Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning)
The crazy meth head and extreme 'Christian'(she cusses a lot) has so many problems and issues, that she takes them out on Piper. Their story starts in a very weird way, but it becomes a central point and why Piper needs to toughen up. Easily one of the most popular characters. - Additional reporting by Buhle Mbonambi