Summer 2013 Review: Orange is the New Black

19 Jul

Orange is indeed the New Black

Before I say anything else, I want to say that I absolutely love the title, “Orange is the New Black.”  Most titles are just fine; they describe the show or feature the name of the main character or characters and occasionally a show’s title will be out and out bad.  I rarely come across one I like enough to single it out for praise and when I do, I want to make sure it’s noted.  Great title!

Moving on.

Orange is the New Black is the story of the 15 month imprisonment of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling).  Chapman is a middle to upper middle class early-to-mid thirty-something white person who is engaged to Larry, played by Jason Biggs (yes, it’s hard to try to take him seriously; but it’s hardly his fault, so let’s try).  Right after college, a decade ago, she agreed to carry some money to Belgium for her drug dealer girlfriend she was in love with at the time.  That period in her life passed, and now she’s in a much different place, but it comes back to bite her when she gets indicted for her role carrying the drug money, just before the statute of limitations has passed.  Chapman made a deal, based on her lawyer’s advice, to agree to a sentence in prison, rather than fight the charges, and she has to put her life on hold for over a year while facing a terrifying challenge she could never have imagined happened, especially as her single transgression took place so long ago.

Piper Chapman is a character that I, and probably most of the target demographic for the show, can easily relate to.  She’s middle class or higher, bright, college educated, erudite, who made a mistake as a recent graduate in love which is coming back to haunt her years later.  Jail isn’t something that would enter her world as a serious possibility in life. Piper read a book about prison before she went in, detailing strategies for survival, like one might read before entering college or grad school.  It’s exactly what someone like myself might do in the same situation.

Piper’s not like most people we see in prison on TV.  Most movies and television series set in jail either feature what we think of as career criminals types, white collar criminals who committed murder or major fraud, or someone framed after a complicated conspiracy or miscarriage of justice.  Many television and film prisons are the worst of the worst; places where you’d be lucky to survive a day, let alone a month.  Piper’s prison is a scary place but not Oz-terrifying, which adds to making her predicament feel all the real. It’s so terrifying because it is less over the top.

When Jerry Seinfeld hosted Saturday Night Live in 1999, he did a parody of Oz, through the observational comedy lens of an episode of Seinfeld.  It was funny because Oz is a fairly humorless brutal show where nearly every episode features a murder and a rape, and the humor felt so out of place.  That incongruity is a part of the prison in Orange is the New Black.  Prison is both a cruel and terrible place and a place with seemingly misplaced moments of lightness, because, hey, you have to make it through the day to day, and any place people have to do it, they find a way to make light occasionally because the alternatives are a shitty situation and sulking 24/7 about it.

I’ve read the word dramedy used to describe Orange is the New Black and as much as that word is a clear hedge for shows that don’t meet our preconceived conceptions of comedy or drama, in this case, it’s about right.  It’s not laugh out loud funny but it makes you smile and occasionally chuckle (chortle even maybe?).  The genius of Orange is the New Black is i’s ability to make prison seem both amusing and terrifying at the same time.  Not even amusing because it’s so terrifying, but generally amusing. We’re discovering the little quirks of being a prisoner along with Piper.  Adjusting is extremely difficult and there’s no getting around that; Piper has to partially successfully hold in tears constantly during her first day and making it until her fiancé can visit is extremely rough.  Still, the most shocking thing about the prison is that both all the stories are and aren’t true at the same time.  All the lesbian sex, the racial tribalism, the you-scratch-my-back-I-scratch-yours, the little tricks to escape the attention of the guards.  But at the same time, people have a capacity for standing by one another, a bond, and there’s plenty of seemingly incongruous light moments when prisoners help each other out, or make a joke at her expense, but to be lighthearted, rather than to be cruel. This is about the day to day.  How do you make it through within wanting to kill yourself?  She’s learning and so are we.

So often I beg television to prove me with something new, and something new Orange is the New Black delivers.  New doesn’t always have to mean revolutionary.  Sure, we’ve seen jail before but never with a protagonist like this, never with a tone like this, and never in a jail like this.  It’s interesting, it’s surprisingly not too heavy for a show about a “regular” person going to jail and it’s frankly delightful.  Netflix, you’re on a bit of a hot streak.

Will I watch it again?  Yes.  It’s new, less so in the place than in the concept, and of course more importantly than new, it’s good.  Dramedy is a difficult area; for some reason, we as a culture have decided to demarcate this line between comedy and drama, and with the exception of maybe Aaron Sorkin, it’s often been difficult to find a place in the middle that isn’t just a comedy which isn’t really funny or a drama where people don’t die.  There’s a bitterwsweet tone that is unique on television, seems incredibly appropriate to the premise.  Her situation is terrible; but in the day to day she has to get on. And adjust the way people apparently do.

2 Responses to “Summer 2013 Review: Orange is the New Black”

  1. Carlos August 2, 2013 at 9:14 pm #

    Nice review. In your opinion what is the target demographics of this show?

    It’s a tv show for the female audience or for booth genders?

    • televisionthedrugofthenation August 13, 2013 at 10:31 pm #

      Target may be the wrong word, but I think the demographic most likely to watch it are probably college students and college-graduated middle class late teens to early forties. I don’t think there’s any reason why others wouldn’t enjoy it, but I think those are the people likely first reading the blogs and spreading the buzz.

      It’s definitely for both genders; it’s nice to see a show that focuses on women that doesn’t simply fit in the primetime soap type genre of Desperate Housewives.

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