PRISON dramas have long been popular, from The Shawshank Redemption to Oz, and while most shows and films deal with incarcerated men there have been a handful of projects involving female inmates which aren’t simply the set-up for raunchy soap-dropping pornography. Best known to Brits is the late-nineties-to-early-noughties melodrama Bad Girls, which apparently took place in the same universe as Footballer’s Wives and, much like that show, just got sillier, campier and more pointless as it went along. Although I enjoy Bad Girls as a cheesy guilty pleasure (it even has a stage musical now!) it’s been completely beaten at its own game by Orange is the New Black, an American series by Netflix which recently launched its third season.
It’s hard to know where to begin praising OITNB: Do I start with the clever writing? The massive cast? The unique tone dripping with weirdness and surreality? It’s such an impressive show and strangely hard to describe. I had no idea going in that I was in for a show with a mythological chicken which may or may not exist, but its mystical elements represent the mass hysteria which develops in incarcerated people.
As the opening theme song You’ve Got Time (by Regina Spektor) reminds us every episode, the characters in OitNB are cursed with an immense amount of free time in which they all lose their minds and obsess over one daft plot point after another. For such a huge ensemble, it’s constantly effective seeing how each and every inmate responds to the new piece of daftness each day.
Structurally, the best innovation of OitNB is the decision to depict each character’s backstory throughout an episode, giving each one in turn a boatload of complex development and variety. Because the show features women of all ages and backgrounds, each story begins in a different way but we know they all end in the same place. As time has gone on, we’ve seen even obscure background characters in the limelight this way. I’m not going to discuss any of these flashback sequences in depth because I don’t want to spoil any of them; suffice to say, they’re consistently enlightening and tragic.
Initially the show focuses on the protagonist Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), who enters prison for a long-overdue drug trafficking sentence. Piper’s interaction with her family and fiancée Larry (Jason Biggs) and her unfortunate reunion with ex-lover and partner in crime Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) are really compelling. As Piper adjusts to prison life, making constant faux-pas and antagonising all the wrong people, Schilling plays her as a compelling lead, but Piper is by no means the most interesting of these ladies.
As the seasons progress, Piper’s screen-time levels out with a few more characters and it becomes a true ensemble piece without a central lead. From what I can tell, the early significance of beautiful blonde Piper was a cynical focus group move, and Piper’s storyline was loosely inspired by the memoirs of Piper Kerman, from which the show borrows its name.
As soon as the show was a hit, the balance could be re-dressed and the less conventionally attractive, more racially diverse characters racked up more screentime. That’s not to say Piper hasn’t stayed integral; she’s learned to fight, manipulate and bargain her way and has distinct interactions with her fellow cast members.
I can’t possibly discuss every other character without far exceeding the word count and pointing to stand-outs is so unfair, because believe me there are tons of great characters in this show. My personal favourite is Lorna Morello (Yael Stone), a flaky young Bostonian who obsesses over West Side Story, improvises glamorous make-up out of whatever she can find and constantly mews about her fiancée Christopher. If you’ve seen her focal episode in Season 2, you’ll know why I love her so much, but I won’t dare spoil anything here.
The staff are as colourful a bunch as the inmates: from psychotic “Pornstache” Mendez (Pablo Schreiber) to heartless warden Natalie Figueroa (Alysia Reiner). As the series progresses it becomes clear that the staff are no less imprisoned than the inmates, even if not literally. Counsellor Sam Healy (Michael J. Harney) has floated from protagonist to antagonist and back again and is more disturbed and doggedly misguided as any of the inmates he’s supposedly there to help.
There are a hundred and one reasons to recommend OitNB, a show which has gripped a far wider audience than any studio believed it could. So much of its quality lies in the little details and the weird little risks it takes with each season becoming more confident than the last. There’s a humanity to the whole series which immerses us in its world and makes the year-long wait for the next season unbearable. OitNB is one of the best reasons to subscribe to Netflix in the first place, so if you already have it and you’re not watching then I highly suggest letting this brilliant show take you prisoner.