Orange is the New Black (Season One)
Orange is the New Black (Season One)
If you haven't seen the show then just read the next section. Below that is a full review for those who have.
On several occasions recently I have given what I consider to be a fair and balanced review of a show. Sometime later I hear from someone that they didn't watch it because I "trashed" it.
To cut to the chase: I have so far seen four great drama shows on American television (The Wire, Breaking Bad, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost). Even within those shows I have points to critique and at times get angry about. So it stands to reason that any show below that level is going to receive a review with plenty of "Bad" in it.
Orange is the New Black is a massively flawed show just like all the other dramas outside that top four. So no, I can't say "Oh you have to see it" in an excited tone as some would like me to.
What I will say is that if you are interested in character-based storytelling then you might enjoy this. It's set in a women's prison and has a large cast of interesting female characters. That is very unusual right now and should be applauded.
I can't think of a drama that makes for an easy comparison. The show shares the flashbacks and large ensemble of Lost but you wouldn't point to Lost as something similar. I wouldn't point to Prison Break or Spartacus either despite the obvious similarity of both beginning their runs in prison. In both cases the narrative was driving toward the dramatic escape whereas Orange is focussed on character and how the prison environment affects the individual.
Without spoiling plot details that's about the best I can do. I found the show interesting and engaging but also frustrating and annoying. If you have read a few of my reviews then that should come as no surprise. If you like character drama and want more women on your TV then go check it out. If you want Breaking Bad-style satisfaction then lower your expectations.
SPOILER WARNING. BELOW THIS POINT IS THE REVIEW FOR THOSE WHO HAVE SEEN THE SHOW
The Good: Ok, so Orange is the New Black should first and foremost be applauded for being about character and featuring so many women. On the latter it remains the case that Hollywood is dominated by men and most good TV shows are too. It's great to see a show that begins to redress that balance and presents interesting female characters and actresses. And on the former point, I will always applaud shows which put character before formula. I do think Orange drifted toward soap opera at times but overall I think the story of Piper going through change was the main hook of the show and I enjoyed seeing that.
The acting on display was pretty good. Taylor Schilling (Piper) was an excellent lead. She was likeable throughout the series while hinting at greater depth. I liked the way Piper began a lot of scenes with a blank face. During her scenes in prison she would often be tired, anxious or in thought before being confronted by something which called for a strong emotional reaction. That blankness offered a nice contrast to her in flashback when she played party girl or fiancé or best friend. It's always impressive when someone can play a character in a very different phase in their life.
This was also the best role I've seen for Laura Prepon (Alex Vause) whose character was far more comfortable with her choices than the in-flux Piper. Beyond them the sheer variety of prisoners was interesting. Many stood out for the warmth they showed (Sophia the transgender hair stylist or Taystee the excitable inmate who returned to prison by the end) or the genuine laughs they delivered (Boo dragging her puppy around or Crazy Eyes who revealed hidden depths). Or were just pleasant supporting players showing the camaraderie and bonding that helps keep them all sane.
The Unknown: I believe that TV shows live and die by their writing though and the results here were mixed to say the least.
Piper's story dominated proceedings and remained interesting throughout. The gulf between her perspective and Larry's was the most relatable part of the show for obvious reasons. I really liked the way her perspective on communication was so fraught. Her access to communication is so limited that she has to make hard choices on what to share with him. Does she spend their precious minutes venting about her life or does she try to limit his anxiety by not sharing her worst experiences? Does she scold him for letting her down or does she try to be understanding of what he is going through? And I didn't hate Larry as a result. My sympathy was always with Piper but I understood why he would struggle to understand her perspective.
I like the idea that Piper begins the show as our "nice" character who is kind to everyone and ends the season with people questioning her behaviour. The question of whether she can't be alone and therefore messes her loved ones around has plenty of potential. However the plot dynamics didn't lead to emotion or drama.
Instead the sequence of events which led her back into Alex' arms and then had Larry discover the shocking news were bizarre. Mr Healy's bizarre anger at her for her "lesbian" dancing really needed more explanation. We got hints of the unhappiness that might fuel his interest in Piper but it was never fleshed out in a way that felt convincing. So he overreacts and sends her to SHU and she slowly figures out why he responded like that. So how does she respond? With a bitter and venomous verbal assault which did not feel like it came from an earned level of frustration.
The Bad: So many big emotional moments like that fell flat. Piper being in SHU only hinted at the desperation and psychological torment which that place could generate. Similarly Tiffany "Pennsatucky" Doggett's time in the psych ward was disturbing but brief. In neither case did the show seem to want to explore the inhuman nature of incarceration, just use a taste of it for drama's sake.
The character of Pennsatucky was a problem throughout. There was great potential in exploring her background (as she became a cause for the abortion lobby) but instead she was presented as randomly unstable. Loads of characters "disrespected" her until she decides that some deserve to die. Should a murderer who is so fickle be allowed to live amongst the general population? The closing scene with her and Piper included another bizarre instance of Healy ignoring morality and then ended with a sense that the beating was there to extend Piper's sentence rather than be the organic conclusion to her journey.
Tricia's suicide failed to make the necessary impact in part because of the involvement of "Pornstache." Up to that point he was so overtly comic that I had no emotional reaction to him covering up his part in Tricia's fate. You would assume that his utter indifference to her fate and Red's plot against him would turn him into the show's true villain. Instead that was the moment when the writing began to humanise him. Suddenly he was lonely and goofy and fell in love because he was so devoid of human contact. Don't mistake that story for clever, well rounded writing. It had no emotional resonance and so utterly failed in either task and drained the whole rape\pregnancy angle of any impact.
The fact that Mendez was not immediately charged for rape was indicative of another big problem for the show. The roles of the various guards and administrators was never adequately explained. It was not clear what the balance of power was between Healy, Caputo and Figueroa and their bickering meant nothing as a result. At one point Healy writes Alex and Piper up for the incident with the washing machine and yet it wasn't clear how serious that black mark was for either of them. Would it affect future appeals and thus sentence length?
The writers never treated any of those moments as more important than the Larry-Piper story either. When you treat rape or death like it's a B or C story you indicate to your audience that they can be distanced from the real emotions that go with those events. And ultimately that's what I think Orange's biggest problem is. I don't think Jenji Kohan really wants to get into the emotions of those moments, I think she just knows that drama TV shows need some drama.
I think the show she really wants to make is one with the Christmas Pageant in it. It was a perfectly pleasant sequence about how all these women have talent and can make you smile and feel warm. But it was lightweight. It didn't focus on the far more interesting realities of prison life. Similarly most of the flashbacks we saw were the same story in different forms. A young woman who is trapped in some way by her family, her desires and the expectations of the world. So she ends up committing a crime and that's why she's in prison - she's not a bad person, she got a raw deal. That's fine for one persons story but it's not a reflection of the failed education and poverty that leads to so many broken lives.
I have no problem with a lightweight prison show. A heart-warming presentation about a minimum security prison which only wants to hint at real darkness could work fine. But Orange kept bringing much darker ideas into play and botched them all. And although many of those minor characters were entertaining, I would struggle to think of any who I really care about. They all received their little moment of attention and then went back to the chorus.
I also feel that the Netflix model encourages show runners to ignore the value of a good self contained episode. The fact that there were multiple flashbacks from different characters in some episodes shows a lack of focus. None of the flashbacks generated the kind of sympathy and empathy which Lost rode to massive success. And no episode ended with an emotional point driven home where it would stay with you and become memorable.
Conclusion: I watched Orange with my girlfriend who felt similarly engaged but disappointed with the show. The writing seemed to constantly introduce interesting ideas and then do nothing with them. Or put characters in emotional situations and then have them drift out of them. I can't conclude with anything other than disappointment when thirteen episodes in I have no moment to point to where the show nailed something and made me feel. However the show is not an utter failure because I happily watched all of it and would watch more.
There is real value in presenting a character-based story even if it's flawed. There is something to celebrate about so many good actresses being on TV even if only one of them gets to play a whole role. And there's something fundamentally important to our society about prison that is worth exploring even if this show is more interested in the hearts of gold than the terrifying reality of losing your freedom.