Originally published on So So Gay on 20 June 2015.
A show about about the daily shenanigans of a women-only prison is bound to prompt a lot of people to imagine it’s all Sapphic strife…
…but it’s not all about lesbians.
Orange is the New Black (OITNB) was one of the first programmes to showcase the Netflix Originals strand back in 2013 and the streaming service certainly put its best foot forward. While on the surface it may seem like the American twin to the Australian drama Wentworth Prison, which also premiered in the summer of 2013, to confuse the two would do a disservice to both shows, which are equally excellent. While Wentworth Prison went down the darker and more straightforward drama route, OITNB has a tone that is much harder to pin down. Undeniably hilarious at times thanks to some occasionally outrageous and pithy dialogue, OITNB manages to deftly handle both levity and gravity.
Using American memoirist Piper Kerman’s book Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison as a springboard, the show begins by focussing on the recently incarcerated character of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling). Even though her love triangle with fiance Larry (Jason Biggs) and her ex-con Ex, Alex Vaus (Laura Prepon), who she finds herself locked up with, is one of the show’s initial big plots, it quickly opens up to embrace and explore its colourful and diverse cast. While there are obviously standout characters (Russian Janeway FTW!), the show manages to successfully realise all of its large, and overwhelmingly female ensemble – helped in no small part by its very talented cast.
In much the same way that shows like Lost used flashbacks to flesh out a current storyline or help explain how a character got into their present predicament, OITNB utilises them with great efficacy. A perfect example is the character of Suzanne ‘Crazy Eyes’ Warren, played by Uzo Aduba, who won an Emmy for her portrayal. It would have been very easy for the character to be relegated to a flat, comic relief caricature, but thanks to Aduba’s nuanced acting and the excellent writing, Crazy Eyes is a wonderful character with real heart – but she’s by no means the only one.
Dealing with big issues like gender identity and sexuality, racism, substance abuse, religious fundamentalism, and many others, OITNB always manages to uses shades of grey in its story telling. Similarly, the inmates of Litchfield Penitentiary are humanised individuals, rather than cardboard cut-out druggies, murderers and other assorted criminal types. At its core, OITNB is about people and relationships, and manages to create a world full of engaging characters who you’re interested to see develop and evolve – and not always in the obvious way you would expect, as the show’s latest series has proved.
With its third season only just released, it’s not too late to
binge watch catch up on not just one of the best shows of the current crop, but an excellent production in its own right that will surely stand the test of time as a modern classic.
All three seasons of Orange is the New Black are available to stream now on Netflix.