Posted by: markfender | June 11, 2014

Orange Is the New Black

I didn’t watch Orange Is the New Black when it first “aired” because I wasn’t fond of Weeds. That, and the name is stupid.

oitnbWeeds was the sort of show I should have liked. It’s got an interesting premise and I like many of the actors cast. But, within a few episodes, I was entirely against it. Despite the fact that it was nice to see Elizabeth Marks again, her character was utterly reprehensible to me and I hated every minute she was on screen. Add in the stupid fake drama and unlikable main character and I never made it through the first season. So the tagline on Orange of “From the creator of Weeds” pretty much meant I’d never watch it.

But, after enough recommendations, I did finally watch it. And it’s pretty good. I wouldn’t proclaim it the best thing ever (I mean, if we’re just talking Netflix series’, I’d rank House of Cards and Arrested Development above it). But it’s much better than its pedigree would suggest.

Orange Is the New Black follows the adventures of Piper Chapman, who goes to minimum security prison after some drug running business from her past catches up with her. As your typical upper-middle class WASP character that Jenji Kohan seems to love so much, Piper has trouble adapting to the life of a prison inmate. As a ‘dramedy,’ it plays Piper’s confusion for laughs most of the time with the occasional jaunt into drama (with the fight in the yard that ends the first season as the most prominent example).

What I think helps distinguish OITNB (what an annoying show name) is that it’s an ensemble show. There’s a lot of women in prison and almost all of them get some backstory and episodes focused on them. Kate Mulgrew is pretty great as Red, the domineering Russian chef (To be honest, it took me about four episodes before I figured out it was her. I’m not that familiar with her career). Natasha Lyonne is also pretty good, even if she’s sort of doing her Natasha Lyonne character that she always does. But, as the show moves around between the various characters, providing flashbacks to their outside lives and, usually, the crime that got them incarcerated in the first place, it broadens the show out in ways that really made it work for me, instead of just a focus on Piper’s struggles (In fact, there are entire episodes where Piper doesn’t even appear).

Unfortunately, it’s not perfect. It seems to want to cut the difference between “real” drama and television drama too much. As a real drama, it plays up the dog-eat-dog world of prison life, with lots of posturing, yelling, and gang violence. But then, it will do stupid holiday episodes, in which everyone is cooperating in the spirit of Christmas (or whatever). After the very real machismo shown by these locked up women in earlier episodes, to see everyone happily doing a gift exchange didn’t really work for me. Or, a character that has never had any interactions with another character (because of racial/gang divides), will suddenly offer advice to the other character for that dramatic third act character shift. So, there’s vicious beatings with locks in socks, but then we get the star-crossed love between a guard and an inmate – the dramatic shifts in tone don’t really work for me. (I have no problem with the tonal shift to humor, it’s just when the show can’t quite decide what kind of drama it wants to be that it fails). It also plays a little too close to liberal politics often, which denigrates into television drama. The transgender character (and let’s give kudos for casting an actual transgender person in the role) has a wife that is entirely too understanding of the changes her husband is going through. One of the “real” lesbian’s Army father accepts her sexuality without a single issue. And while, these are fairly admirable traits, they’re also pretty unrealistic. I’m not asking for The Wire here (speaking of, it gets The Wire quota with Pablo Schrieber), but I sometimes wish the show would pick a dramatic angle and stick with it.

Speaking of lesbians, this show is chock full of ’em, both the “real” variety and the college variety (which is another good example of the show trying to cover both sides of drama). Despite some of the licentious examples of lesbianism that the show has to get into in order to get that all important male demographic (I guess), it also deals with some legitimate relationship issues. I, in particular, find Piper and Alex’s relationship fascinating. I really like Alex’s character and Piper’s dynamic with that is interesting. Granted, it sort of comes down to Alex being a really good liar and Piper being a naive, selfish person, but it hits the right beats. If there’s a disappointment I have in the second season, it’s that Laura Prepon didn’t seem to realize the show would be a hit and contractually couldn’t do that many episodes, putting that whole relationship on the back burner.

Overall, I think I prefer the first season. For one, it had a lot more Alex and she’s great. Her dynamic, both with Piper and Nicky, is sorely lacking. I wasn’t sold on the addition of Vee (Oh look, another character from someone’s past ends up in the same prison) in the second season but her storyline turned out to be pretty good and drove the entirety of the second season. And Piper’s outside friend, Polly, the de rigeur privileged bitch (Dear Jenji Kohan: Gweneth Paltrow isn’t your target demographic. No one wants to hear the 1% complain about their lives, even if you do write it funny), gets more screentime in the second season. And there isn’t enough Pornstache in the second season. The second isn’t bad, but it’s not as good. Which, honestly, might have just been scheduling issues more than a failure in the writing department. I have hopes for the third.

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