When Netflix first announced it was going to make TV-style series, few people expected much. After all, most previous web content that stretched beyond a few minutes was absolutely dreadful. However the subscription-based internet upstart has proved they can equal or even better the US networks, with House Of Cards winning Golden Globes and Emmys, while Orange Is The New Black took TV Program Of The Year at the AFI Awards and received almost universal acclaim.
Loosely based on an acclaimed memoir, the 13 episodes of Season 1 follows Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), who’s been sentenced to a term in prison for transporting drug money and is just about to enter a US women’s federal penitentiary. That means leaving behind her nice, middle-class life and her fiancé (Jason Biggs) and going to a place she knows nothing about.
Unsurprisingly it’s a baptism of fire for Piper, who discovers prison is a place of strange rules and that many of her preconceptions are completely wrong. She also manages to screw up almost immediately by insulting the food in front of the fierce Red (Kate Mulgrew), who’s in charge of the kitchen, leading to Red refusing to allow her to have any food at all.
If that weren’t enough she also discovers her former girlfriend – the one who got her mixed up in drugs in the first place – is locked up in the same prison.
For about the first 20 minutes Orange Is The New Black feels like it’s just going to yet another clichéd prison-set drama, but once Piper gets behind the very secure walls the show reveals it to be something a lot more interesting. It’s helped enormously by its sly sense of humour and the fact that it’s more interested in its characters as people than inmates. Indeed there’s a slightly Big Brother quality to some of it, dealing with how people react when they’re stuck with a bunch of people and there’s no way out – whether it’s the ex-girlfriend you now hate, or a lady who persistently and rather nuttily wants to be the new girlfriend.
The show has an eclectic bunch of characters, and lazier writing could have turned the whole thing into a human zoo. Instead it has genuine respect for these people, showing that while some inmates may be bad people, a lot are just ordinary folks who’ve made mistakes (and some shouldn’t really be there at all).
That respect for the characters as people includes trans actress Laverne Cox’s Sophia, who is inevitably subjected to the usual trans taunts and epithets by the other inmates (although rarely with genuine malice), but rises above it due to her innate strength and goodness. It’s also great that it doesn’t use her solely as an ‘issue of the week’, who is just about her gender. While there are issues surround her trans status – such as the prison refusing her access to enough of the hormones she needs – these come as part of a move complex character whose entire existence isn’t limited to ‘being transgender’. And it’s done in a smart way so that it can actually be quite informative for those who don’t know much about trans people (and are even less used to seeing a real trans person in such a role).
There’s also a fair amount of lesbian interest in the show, and once more Orange Is The New Black benefits from eschewing the usual women’s prison stereotypes. Usually with these sorts of series any prisoner with power is an uber-butch lesbian, while becoming someone’s same-sex ‘bitch’ is the ultimate signifier of the degrading effects of prison life, and sex is solely about power. Instead the show is pretty neutral on the matter the lesbian activity going on, and in the case of Piper you’re presented with a character where there’s no big fuss about the fact she was previously with a woman but is now with a guy – that’s just how it was.
If you’re not a Netflix subscriber or just want a copy you can keep for yourself, it’s well worth getting hold of Orange Is The New Black. The show is pretty funny, well-written, often surprisingly moving and has some great actresses doing sterling work in it. And with 13 episodes it’s perfect for binge viewing without having to completely give up sunlight and society at large. Having said that, Season 2 is due to be released on Netflix in July, so if you become addicted to Season 1 – which is a distinct possibility – you’ll have to subscribe and set aside a chunk of that month too.
Overall Verdict: A great show that helps prove Netflix is becoming a true force to be reckoned with in the world of TV (or at least its subscription model analogue). Great characters, plenty of wit and a lot of LGBT interest mean this really is one to watch.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac