Orange Is The New Black: I Got A Little Time for That


Since reclaiming our Netflix queue from the clutches of less desirable cretins watching Tyler Perry movies (long story involving our stolen PS3), the husband and I have been trying to reprogram the algorithms into recommending good shows to watch.  In other words, not Big Momma’s House (that was actually a recommendation, and I wanted to slit my wrists and weep for my poor, neglected Netflix).  Luckily, Orange Is the New Black is a Netflix original and was promoted right alongside Crips & Bloods: Life In America.  It wasn’t until I started watching that I realized the distinct similarities this show shared with documentaries about criminals.  That means there are spoilers after the jump, so you’ve been warned, inmate.


Real friends pee with the door open.

From former inmate #11187-424, also known as writer Piper Kerman (yes folks, this is based on a true story) we have a rather unique view of life on the inside, as she embarks on a 15-month sentence for a non-violent crime committed a decade ago.  Although she reiterates that she was “a different person” back then, proud Piper dries her eyes, stiffens that thoroughbred Connecticut-stock upper lip and self surrenders to begin her sentence.   And man, did they nail the actress chosen to play the sexually conflicted debutante:


Fake Piper/Real Piper. That’s just creepy.

Taylor Schilling plays Piper Chapman, and though her acting resume is not as extensive as her co-stars, her outstanding performance in this series suggests that will quickly change.  She delivers a realistic portrayal of life on the inside, and how it impacts her mentally and emotionally.  Laura Prepon is Alex Vause (real life Nora Jansen), the irresistible heroin smuggler who throws ex-lover Piper under the prison bus for transporting drug money.  As always, Prepon is fantastic and eludes an ease in her depiction that belies her practiced skill.


That’s not exactly a threat…

Jason Biggs is back as Piper’s fiancé Larry Bloom, with his predictably intrusive but accommodating Jewish parents and awkward sexual situations.  He unthinkingly endangers Piper after publishing an article in the New York Times about their strained relationship, and follows up with an NPR interview that leaves some inmates elated just to hear themselves described, and others infuriated.  Some have declared his role auxiliary and non-essential to the plot, but I enjoyed the occasional change of viewpoint; as the season progressed, Biggs really sinks his teeth in and shows he’s capable of handling a serious part – best I’ve seen since Loser. 


A real man drives you to prison. *swoon*

Along for the ride is Biggs’ American Pie co-star Natasha Lyonne, sporting a story-implemented chest scar from her recent heart surgery along with her uncanny ability to verbally destroy inmates and guards alike.  Other Weeds veterans also grace the scene, including The Wire‘s Pablo Schrieber as prison guard George “Pornstache” Mendez and Michael Harney as the initially affable senior officer Sam Healy.  I was hoping Piper would have someone on the inside (but on the opposite “side”, as a guard) to defend her, but I could not have been more wrong – Healy fulfills the standard abuse of minimal power role, even though his own life is made complicated by an overbearing boss and a mail-order bride with her mother.  Pornstache, who could have just stepped off the set of SuperTroopers, has several hobbies which include “relations” with inmates and running drugs through the kitchen, much to the chagrin of the prison chef. 


Just looking at that guy makes my skin crawl…

Galina ‘Red’ Reznikov, a former cook with Russian mob ties, is played by none other than Kate Mulgrew.  I didn’t recognize the hard-faced Captain Janeway with kool-aid dyed hair and a few years on her – but she quickly became one of my favorite characters.  Another I almost didn’t recognize was Sons of Anarchy’s Taryn Manning as a meth-mouthed Bible-thumper aptly nicknamed ‘Pennsatucky’.  She plays Appalachian trash very well, and although her character has a severe case of guano-psychosis, you relish her being onscreen, because something strange and wonderful is about to happen.  She ramps up the crazy and gives the impression you really have caught a glimpse inside a correctional institution.  I wish I had more room to fully examine each character on the show – they are so complex and rich and well developed that they deserve it, but there are way too many to give each one their due.


And this isn’t even all of them…

There’s “Crazy Eyes”, who forms a stalkeriffic crush on our main protagonist.  Also a toxic mother-daughter combination, a Zen-preaching yoga instructor who clashes with a former track star, a political protestor/nun, a bride-to-be/prison transport driver, and a vivacious woman suffering from institutionalization.  I was happy to see transgendered actress Laverne Cox in the role of a transgendered prisoner, as our own Benny Bedlam elaborated on rather eloquently last week.  She is excellent as a Sophia Burset, a former firefighter serving time for credit card fraud implied to have funded her gender reassignment surgery.  Equally notable is Michelle Hurst, who earned her stripes on shows like Law and Order and Rescue Me, often portraying medical or social workers her serious, no-nonsense demeanor projects.  Her role here is no different, as strict Cajun matron Claudette Pelage, who has a compulsion for cleaning and is fiercely protective.  And check out newcomer Madeline Brewer as naïve teenage junkie Tricia Miller; I honestly cried when she departed the show – absolutely amazing portrayal of her character.


Damn, I forgot my purse… oh, wait…

Part of me was not entirely convinced after the first episode – there was a lingering concern that I was being subjected to Perfect Piper’s Popularity Pageant, complete with haunting visions of Amanda Buckman at summer camp.  I prayed this was not another pity party for someone who made “tragically unfortunate choices,” and I was pleasantly rewarded the second time around.  After the third episode, involving Piper’s stalker marking her territory much in the way my cat does, I was reminded of Nancy Botwin collapsing on a heroin-filled trunk in her garage, unable to process what she was experiencing.  That utter feeling of panic that sets in your chest and renders you speechless, unable to breathe, unable to move.  Fade to orange, fade to black, cue the hysterical laughter and the “did that really just happen?!” 

In Piper’s own words: “I have been starved out, felt up, teased, stalked, threatened and called Taylor Swift!”  And the latter is probably the most offensive.  OITNB is proving to be one of the few shows where episodes titled “Blood Donut” end up being more about prison politics than… um, something gross involving food and feminine hygiene products (that’s in another episode).  One of few where the bullsh*t doesn’t fly – most everyone sees right through Piper’s sweet as pie routine and calls her on it.  Ah, justice by a true jury of your peers.


The ladies of Litchfield.

The one issue I have is the insistence that everyone has some kind of sob story.  I understand the need to evoke sympathy for mostly unsavory characters, but not everyone was sold into indentured servitude or forced to manufacture drugs in their kitchens under threat of rape/death.  Some people, some criminals, are just terrible people who do terrible things.  Netflix’s tagline is “Every sentence is a story”; some are just beginning, some are not pleasant, and some are totally normal, average citizens who do terrible things.  I hope the intent here is to gradually switch the empathy viewers feel towards Piper, the poor little rich girl sent to prison for a “mistake”, to the other inmates who had little opportunity and fewer options.  When looking into Piper’s past, she’s not exactly a “nice” person, which “Crazy Eyes” hits right on the head.  

I regret that I haven’t picked up the book yet – I’d really like to compare the two and see just how much was fabricated for television.  In the article snippets I’ve read, no mention is made of Piper sharing her incarceration with Alex (Nora), so I’m fairly convinced that was an added bonus by Jenji Kohan and producers seeking additional conflict.  I’m also hopeful OITNB won’t wane in favor, as Weeds did for me once the Botwin’s left Agrestic; as much as I’m eager to see the conclusion of Piper’s story, I’m also stoked just to watch the interaction of supporting characters and their own development – the true sign of a well-developed series.  Netflix is producing some quality shows, no denying it.  I give it a 4.5 out of 5 – it’s about as perfect as it gets, with only minor flaws and never, EVER dull.

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  1. This show is amazing for:

    1)Having a main cast of exclusively women
    2)Having a racial diverse cast
    3)Realistically portraying womens’ sexuality and lesbian/bi relationships without being cliqued or pandering
    4)Having cast that’s not just really attractive thin people
    5)This show is hilarious

    I think as the show goes on it does show more of a variety of reason go to prison. Particularly people who have good lives and opportunities, yet, get involved in crime for money (several of the characters) or to feel like they belong. Some characters are in jail for unjustified violent reasons (shooting at the abortion clinic). Or characters who were involved in crime or living with people sorting drugs or partnering with the mob and it’s just their normal life until they get arrested.

    I was expecting more violent criminal backgrounds, but, the main theme is people makes choices. Sometimes the choices are terrible, ill-planned, and illegal.

    1. Litchfield is a minimum security facility, hence the lack of actual cells, so the crimes can’t be too heinous. Pennsatucky killed in cold blood but I guess her lawyer is that good. She’s my favorite character along with pornstache Mendez, hopefully chapman just beat her good and didnt kill her.

  2. Such a good show. Can’t wait for season 2!

    and yeah, we laugh at the extreme situations (like peeing on the floor) but really, how terrifying is that from the other side? It’s a great show doing a great job of keeping as much of the reality as possible while also showing some good caricatures (pornstache) of the types of people associated with a women’s prison.

    Not to mention, my favorite part is slowly but steadily learning why some of those women are there. which makes me excited for the next season, just to hear more of the stories.

  3. I’ve thoughly enjoyed this show on netflix. I do have a couple of problems with it though. It feels like the prison only has about 20 people in it and the gang/violence/racial issues set up in the first couple of episodes melt away so that by the end of the first series it feels more like a St Trinians film of lovable rouges rather than dangerous criminals with mental issues as was the set up.

    Still fun and worth watching though.

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