Dee Discusses: Orange Is the New Black Season 1

Posted: June 5, 2014 by Dee in Dee, General Media, Television
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Season 2 of Orange Is the New Black starts tomorrow, and because of that I thought this would be the time to take a quick look back at the first season. This show was a game changer, in my opinion. Why, you ask? For multiple reasons. First of all it established that Netflix was a force to be reckoned with for more than one reason. House of Cards, Arrested Development, and now this show all prove they have the money and power to make exceptional shows, and to give it to audiences in a way others cannot. We’re not going to need to wait every week for more Orange Is the New Black. It’ll all be up tomorrow so we can binge watch. I hope we find out some kind of numbers on how many people will be marathoning it this weekend. So that’s one major element of the show that makes it so popular and critically acclaimed. Another is the incredible focus on women and WOC. I don’t think it’s a surprise that there aren’t a lot of shows with a primary female lead, or a lot of¬†positive representation for minorities. I’m not sure I’d call this positive representation, but in a way it really is. These characters are flawed and disturbing, but they’re also real. They talk like real people. You may not relate to their situation, but you can relate to them in general. They do this well with the use of flashbacks and backstory, and the understanding that a character can do bad things while still being a good person. Or a bad person with good qualities. The characters are varied, three dimensional, and entertaining to watch.

I’m getting to a conclusion about the show before I talk about the actual plot, so I’ll get back to why it’s important afterward. Orange Is the New Black stars Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman, a bisexual woman who is sent to prison after being named as a drug mule in a past crime. She agreed to take drug money over a border for her girlfriend at the time Alex Vause (Laura Prepon). After an explosive break up, Piper moved on to a nice and normal guy Larry (Jason Biggs). However she was arrested and had to go to prison for fifteen months. The audience follows her as she faces the grim situation she’s in and learns how to survive at prison. This is the female response to Oz, and if you think that means it’s less violent or sexual, you’d be wrong. It’s based roughly on the “real” Piper’s journey in prison, she wrote a book about it, and it’s an interesting story. While in prison her sweet and meek persona does not do well, and she has to learn to get tough or die there. It turns out that Alex is in the prison with her, so she has to cope with her treacherous ex, and her distancing from fiance Larry. Piper’s journey culminates in an act of badassery that only works because the entire season was built up to that end.

In prison, Piper meets several people, and we learn about their stories through flashbacks and plots. This includes intense Red (Kate Mulgrew), the master chef who was involved with the Russian Mob; Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst), Piper’s cellmate who was forced into child labor as a girl and then took over as its leader; Sophia (Laverne Cox), a transgender woman who had credit card fraud when she made her body match her heart; Daya (Dascha Polanco), who is in prison with her own mother and starts a relationship with a guard; ¬†and Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne), a former drug addict who is a surrogate daughter to Red. There are a lot of others, including the brilliant comic duo of Taystee and Poussey (Danielle Brooks and Samira Wiley), and my personal favorite Crazy Eyes (Uzo Abuda). If I listed all the characters it would be half this article, so trust me when I say this is a huge and varied cast, but they all get good scenes and establishing character moments. The main antagonist of the first season is Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), a born again former drug addict with an unhinged mind. I say main because Alex occasionally has her moments of being one, as does the the prison guard supervisor. It’s a complex show with a lot of twists and turns, and with all the angst, it has a lot of laughs. More laughs than I expected when I started watching, but it never downplays the otherwise dark storyline. Just like Piper you are sucked into this world where magical chickens are a thing and rejecting a prison wife makes her pee on your floor.

Okay so back to why this show is exceptional. The power of Netflix and the representation of minorities in race, gender, and orientation are great reasons to start with. The excellent character development, tight dialogue, and seamless flashbacks make it quality entertainment. I think there’s cultural significance in giving characters like this a voice and place in popular media, because they’re sympathetic despite being criminals. I don’t think the show ever excuses their actions either, which is interesting, because often when writing sympathetic characters, they try to use the “well they really need someone to love them” or “they’re good under all of it, see?” Those aren’t bad ways to humanize difficult characters, but in this case, they’re already very human. They did the wrong thing and it’s gotten them where they are now. We don’t need them to redeemed in order to understand or like them. And if they’re not likable? At least they’re great to watch. I think this is a quality that Jenji Kohan is very skilled at. She created Weeds too, which is an example of that same dark humor with extremely flawed characters. She’s an excellent show runner and I’m sure she’s a big part of why the show is inclusive of minorities and centered around women.

If you haven’t seen the show yet I highly recommend it. Season 2 starts tomorrow (Friday), and all of the episodes will be on Netflix. I am looking forward to a few things. First of all, seeing how Piper’s changed now that she’s let in her violent side. I don’t know if Pennsatucky is dead, and I doubt she is, although Piper definitely beat her badly. She’ll probably be back. Alex is only supposed to be in half the episodes, so I’m wondering how that will be explained with her in and out. I hope we get flashbacks with the other characters, I want to know everything about Crazy Eyes. It looks like from the trailer we have a new “bad” guy. Mostly I want the show to continue with its special brand of dark humor and realistic setting, plus continued development for the characters as they grow and change within the plot. I can’t wait to get started!

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Comments
  1. […] loved Orange is the New Black, as you can read in my first season review here. So I was preparing anxiously for the day season two was posted, and then I marathoned the hell out […]

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