Netflix Gives Women a New Home with Orange is the New Black

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I was going to write about the new Paul Feig film The Heat and the unfair weight put on female driven comedies to prove that yes, women are funny. In fact, when I heard of The Heat, the first thing that I thought was “Oh yeah, like FEDS.FEDs (Daniel Goldberg, 1988) is the only other time I can think of that the buddy-cop genre was populated by women. To be honest, I recall FEDs being pretty funny. It features Rebecca De Mornay and SNL alumus Mary Gross as FBI trainees who get dealt a tough case while completing their training and tests. Regardless, it was completely unfair for me to immediately compare it to the only other known female buddy cop movie out there. We’ve seen multiple iterations within the genre including interracial (Lethal Weapon), inter-jurisdictional (Bon Cop Bad Cop), international (Rush Hour), and even interspecies (Turner and Hooch) pairings.

So, I was all prepared and was going to write about how some female driven comedies are held to an impossible standard and how comediennes have to work twice as hard to prove themselves funny. To be honest, I really only have one thing to say about The Heat. It’s a good buddy-cop comedy. It’s not the most hilarious movie ever, but it is quite funny. There are some great moments and I enjoyed the score. It delivers some terrific slapstick/physical humor on the parts of both Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock. The two make a great team and can hold their own. Simply put, if you like buddy-cop comedies give The Heat a shot, women in the lead roles or not.

Then, last week, Netflix rolled out its newest original series, Orange is the New Black, and everything changed.

Orange is the New Black is a one-hour original commercial-free series based on the popular memoir by Piper Kerman, of the same name. The book and the series chronicle Piper’s experience serving a 15-month sentence in a minimum-security federal women’s prison for a decade-old drug related crime that she had all but forgotten about.

At first I thought, “This will be interesting. Why should we care about a WASPy blond lady in prison? Why does she get a voice?” To say the least, the series was going to have to work really hard to prove itself to me. As far as I’m concerned, there is a sizable portion of prison inmates whom are not white and whom do not get a book deal when they get out on parole as a convicted felon…Then I watched it. In fact, I binged on all 13 episodes and now I have no idea what to do with my life.

Consider this: how many series have you seen that are populated almost completely by women? Not many. It has already drawn some comparison to Sex and the City, Girls, and The L Word. I promise you, Orange is the New Black is something you have never seen before. It’s a delightful breathe of fresh air.

Here are a few reasons to consider watching Orange is the New Black. Orange is the New Black is a women-driven dramedy takes place almost entirely inside a minimum-security women’s prison. I can think of only one other series that is set in a prison, and OZ this is not. These women are not, for the most part, violent offenders. There are an awful lot of people in prison because of the well-known “3-strikes” law in the US. These women are pretty normal people incarcerated for crimes such as growing marijuana, drug possession, involuntary manslaughter, theft, and fraud.

The series does right by confronting the very real problems inherent to prison life, such as innumerable infuriating variations of human rights violations (getting sent to solitary for “lesbian dancing” in the common room), the prison industrial complex and the many financial implications of private prisons (budget cuts close the prison track while the assistant director to the warden–who we never see–drives one hell of a fancy car), and drug addiction behind bar. Not to mention the effect of doing time on mothers in prison and their families, and what happens to inmates when they are paroled.

I admit I was nervous to see how the show would handle stereotypical prison myths such as violent predatory lesbian inmates, and what they’d do about Piper’s “former lesbianism.”  I was pleased to find that all of major concerns were addressed, no namby pamby business. The show deals directly issues of race, class, gender, sex, and sexuality. In fact, Orange is the New Black expertly balances the heavy and the light, the happy and the sad. It is as much about the bonds and relationship formed in prison as it is about the good and bad experiences that go along with serving time. The series also affords considerable narrative time to many of the supporting characters, through flashbacks and their own subsidiary story-lines.

Admittedly, I did find my skepticism creeping in as I found that sometimes the happy stuff tended to feel a bit suspicious and tentative, despite the sometimes-plucky score. Don’t worry, you won’t find any spoilers here.

Overall, Orange is the New Black is the New Black. All its elements work beautifully. I could go on-and-on about the cast. There are outstanding performances all-around. It’s wonderful to see Natasha Lyonne back in form. She is terrific as the ex-junkie lesbian inmate Nicky Nichols. Likewise, Star Trek Voyager’s Kate Mulgrew is outstanding as the Russian inmate Red, a both feared and loved mother figure that runs the prison kitchen. That 70s Show alumnus Laura Prepon has shocked me with her portrayal of Alice, Piper’s ex-lover and the woman who may have sold her out for less time served. And for the record, it was the best shock possible. Frankly, I never got her on That 70s Show.

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I could dish out ample praise for any member of the cast and so I also have to remark that the casting is completely perfect. The number of well-rounded female characters played by incredibly talented women is astonishing. Orange is the New Black features actresses both young and old, with a dynamic range of body types, of various racial backgrounds, classes, and cultures. It also boasts one of the first transsexual characters to be featured as a regular supporting player. Real-life transsexual actress Laverne Cox turns out a beautiful performance as Sophia Burset, a former New York City fire fighter imprisoned for credit card fraud.

Uzo Aduba turns in a standout performance as Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren, as an unstable lesbian inmate who falls in love with Piper and wants her to be her prison “wife.” While Taylor Shilling is great as Piper Chapman, the series lead, the accolades should really go to Taryn Manning. She is simply on fire as Tiffany “Pennsyltucky” Doggett, the completely unhinged born-again Christian/former meth-head. I also have to give a shout out to Pablo Schreiber, The Wire’s Nicky Sobotka. His portrayal of the douche-bag correctional officer George “Pornstache” Mendez is extremely entertaining. With nary a trace of his life as a Sobotka, Schreiber is one to keep and eye on. He’s a real chameleon.

Since Season One was released all at once you can binge watch it like I did. I really can’t wait for Season Two, which was renewed before the series was even released. Orange is the New Black is a refreshing and new place for women on TV, so check it out!

 

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