You're watching Orange Is the New Black, right? Because Netflix's show about a kombucha-drinking, Dwell-subscribing, public radio tote-bag-carrying white lady who finds herself serving time in Federal prison because of past involvement with an international drug ring is outstanding. If you're not turning in, you're missing some of the most fascinating, heartbreaking, hilarious women characters to ever grace the small screen.
Based on Piper Kerman's novel about her year in the minimum-security women's prison, the show stars a better than competent Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman. Chapman has it all — or well, blonde hair and a fiancé named Larry. That's pretty much everything you need to be successful in America, right? Well, for most people, but Chapman also has a secret. Right out of college, she fell in love with a woman who just so happened to work for an International drug ring. The details are unimportant, but basically, Chapman has to serve her year long sentence to pay her debt to society, because that's a good use of federal resources. Moving on.
Cut to the prison — Larry drops Piper off, and we fall with her into a whole new world. One inhabited by women — real women. Three-dimensional, multi-faceted, diverse women. Which brings me to the first thing to love about OITNB: the diversity.
It's not diversity in the way we usually see it — the black best friend who's basically just a nice cipher with dark skin, or the weird diversity of the old war movies where there was a black guy and everything he said related to his being black, or there's some Jewish kid named Bronx who's always talking about how much he loves his Bubbie's brisket. Ethnicity is just one facet of complex individual personalities.
It's like The Wire, in some regard. Like the fact that we figured out Rawls was gay cause he shows up in the background of an unrelated scene in a gay bar. But that fact doesn't define everything about him as a human being. Just one texture. And people grow more complicated and contradictory over time. It makes the show such a pleasure to watch, because — in addition to the events of the plot — each episode draws you into the lives of this heterogeneous group of women.
A group where real friendships and relationships form — which is a delight to behold. We so rarely get to see women interact on screen in ways that don't involve men — Bechdel test alert! — and fuck, it is refreshing. Probably because the show is set in a women's prison, expectations of how ladies are supposed to behave are disarmed. This freedom allows for characters that aren't entirely likable or even remotely nice, and that's brilliant because it's humanity.
Plus, I just love that everyone is different looking — it's great to see a wide spectrum of shapes, sizes, ages, and colors represented on screen. I recently watched the Total Recall remake and, I swear, there were three ladies in that movie who were virtually identical. I had to rely on their slightly different hairstyles to tell them apart — when one of the women switched mid-film from a ponytail to wearing her hair down, I was fucked.
Which brings me to the actresses — this is a motherfucking cast. I could watch many of them watching TV — Laverne Cox as Sophia, Michelle Hurst as Miss Claudette, Danielle Brooks as Taystee, Uzo Aduba as Suzie, Taryn Manning as Pennsatucky, Kate "Captain Janeway!" Mulgrew as Red, Lea DeLaria as Big Boo, Natasha Lyonne (!!!) as Nicky, Constance Shulman as Yoga Jones, and Dascha Polanco as Daya are all so damn good. There isn't a weak link in this stellar ensemble, and that's probably largely because it's a group of kickass talented ladies who are excited to be cast in roles of substance because there are so few out there for women who aren't young, thin, and white. Bigger picture, the show takes a more complicated, systemic look at incarceration and the criminal justice system than we usually get. It's far from perfect, but it shows how poverty and class impacts who is incarcerated and why, but it carefully avoids feeling like poverty porn.
That's because the show doesn't fall into the assumed white neutral viewer trap, and it never feels like the creators are trying to explain non-whiteness (or any type of "otherness") by reducing people to their non-white or "other" identifiers. The show never says "here's a window into the sad plight of non-white people" and it doesn't treat anyone's story like an ethnographic artifact to study. Plus, the show often takes a non-white point of entry. For example, there's this amazing scene where a black woman is up for parole, and she's talking with other black inmates about how she'll be perceived by the board. It's suggested she goes for the "black best friend in a white girl movie" look to appeal to the bleeding heart white ladies on the board. "Eat Pray Love, motherfuckers!" Not only is the scene very funny — it's timely and uncomfortable, especially considering how Rachel Jeantel was treated when she testified about her dead best friend, and how the way she was perceived changed how she was heard.
These clever nuances are probably due to the fact that the talent behind the show is fierce. Creator Jenji Kohan from Weeds is obviously a badass weirdo who trades brilliantly in dark humor, and executive story editor Marco Ramirez is a major talent. I recently saw a play he wrote, The Royale, at Center Theater Group in Los Angeles and it blew me away — bold, smart, and challenging. One of OITHB's staff writers, Nick Jones, is another playwright who has several strange and hilarious shows beneath his belt — including Jollyship the Whiz Bang, a pirate puppet rock opera — and I imagine he's a source of much of the show's unexpected, bizarre humor.
I could go on and on about the impressive group of stone cold freaks behind the show, but I'd rather you spend your time watching it. Netflix has stepped up to the plate with women-lead programming with broad appeal — network and cable TV, it's your move.