Prison Dramedy: More Arrested Development, Less Oz
Orange is the New Black, the breakout Netflix original series, is a very good show. Even if you don’t like the first episode (a little too slow and bleak for my tastes), keep at it. When you are finished, feel free to come back and read this review; it contains plot details and spoilers.
Orange is the New Black is based on the book of the same name, and chronicles the incarceration of Piper Chapman (the fictional Piper Kerman), a white, upper-middle class artisanal soap maker forced to serve 13 months in a minimum-security prison. Chapman had formerly been involved in a drug-smuggling operation led by her then lover, Alex Vause (played by former That ‘70s Show star Laura Prepon). A few years later while blissfully engaged to Jason Biggs (Larry Bloom), her past comes crashing back to haunt her in the form of a prison sentence. Suddenly she is forced into a foreign environment where all manner of hijinx ensue.
The show is extremely original and entertaining. A diverse mix of cultures and lifestyles forced into close quarters yields fertile and untapped plot lines for television. Despite this, I came away from the first season with the feeling that there is a whole lot less here than advertised.
Orange is the New Black has the feel of something heavier than your typical one hour comedic drama. The opening credit sequence features close-ups of dozens of actual inmates flashing across a dark screen while Regina Spektor’s haunting “You’ve Got Time” blares in the background. It’s powerful stuff that hints at deeper issues for the conscientious viewer. Jenji Kohan, the show’s creator, has spoken of a desire to tell stories from demographics that TV viewers normally don't have access to and to explore injustices in the prison system. And the first several episodes blew me away, frankly. Stark questions about race (“It’s tribal, not racist”), broken families (Daya being slapped by her delinquent mother), mental illness (Crazy Eyes and the “Diablo” lady), violence, and harsh sexuality and are thrust in the faces of the viewer. All this led me to wonder how in the hell the show was going to deal with these issues while maintaining a comic tone. Well… it doesn’t, really. Most of the tension is dialed back to more comfortable levels as the season moves along.
The “tribes” mostly play nice together and intermingle frequently. Close-knit family units pop up everywhere. And the prisoners? Well, turns out they are all wonderful people deep down. Over the course of the season we are told the story of a variety of inmates through flashbacks, and with one notable exception, they are all colorful, kind-hearted people with tragic backstories. The tyrannical Russian chef is actually a loving mother figure tortured by a history of rejection by her immigrant peers. The dark and seemingly violent Janae is a former track star with a sense of humor who fell in with the wrong crowd. Diablo Lady turns out to not be a lunatic at all, but rather an Andy Kaufman-esque genius. Even Crazy Eyes is a misunderstood child-like soul with a passion for Shakespearian acting, of all things. You get the idea. It’s the type of stuff that plays well with the critics and resonates with the NPR crowd. (Criminals: they are just like you and me! Except more interesting!)
The one exception to the rule is Pennsatucky, the irredeemably stupid faith-healer redneck junkie, who constantly clashes with our protagonist. It’s a safe plot decision that sidesteps any racial tension and pits the typical Netflix viewer against a tried and true historic foe.
Unlike the inmates, the guards are mostly loathsome. Piper’s counselor Sam Healy initially comes off as a reasonable fellow who promises to make her stay easier. Come to find out, he’s lesbian-hater with a comically exaggerated vindictive streak (He simply walks away when Piper is being attacked by a lunatic with a razor blade cross? Really?). Counselor Joe Caputo masturbates furiously after listening in on a conversation between Piper and her fiancé. Natalie Figueroa runs the prison in a manner that can only be compared to Rachel Phelps with the Cleveland Indians. Guard George Mendez* is a buffoonish yet malevolent drug-pushing lecher.
*Is Mendez supposed to be Mexican? The name would suggest so, and he has a mustache, but his personality and mannerisms make him out to be just another redneck villain. Perhaps they initially had someone else in mind for the role? I find it hard to believe that in casting a sleazy Hispanic guard, anyone would think of the man who David Simon picked as the face of white cultural decline in Baltimore. (Long live Nicky Sobotka!)
The thing is, I can’t argue with any of the character and plot decisions insofar as the show is concerned. A prison cast littered with inmates who are sociopaths and misanthropes might be closer to reality (it would certainly be more interesting), but it would also greatly increase the likelihood of me turning the show off. At the very least, it would be a very difficult line to toe. Comedies can only feature so much despair. And this version of the show works. Its inmates are the type of people that once you get to know, spending months with them in ridiculously tight spaces doesn’t seem like all that bad an ordeal. For the most part, that’s what happens. After some initial struggles for Piper, all the conversations become witty, dance parties break out spontaneously, and the overall mood is surprisingly uplifting. The tension has to come from somewhere, and the guards play a big part there, as does a love triangle with Larry* and Alex.
*I actually didn’t care for the Larry angle all that much (though I really enjoyed Polly and Pete). On the whole, conflicts within the prison were a lot more fun and unpredictable.
While the show is great, I didn’t find anything more here than an interesting piece of fiction. Caricatures can really work for comedy, but they aren’t great for extrapolating social truths. I’m no expert, but my guess is that the fictional Litchfield prison bears less resemblance to an actual prison than The Office does to your office. I don’t doubt that some inmates are interesting people fallen victim to tragic circumstances, or that some guards are complete dicks. Thing is, I’ve known some inmates, and I’ve known some guards. If forced to share an apartment with an average specimen, I’m choosing the guard, and it’s not a particularly close.