Orange is the New Black is THE BEST Netflix series! The streaming service ventured into original programming with House of Cards first – a US adaptation of the British black comedy political series from the 1980s (I think) that featured Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart, whose catchphrase, ‘you may think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment’ and his devilish asides to the camera were deliciously Machiavellian. The US version stars Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood and Robin Wright as his wife Claire. Produced by David Fincher, it was the sort of high profile, prestige drama that really put Netflix on the map. Very enjoyable and well made, House of Cards was a big hit, and the first of the Netflix model of releasing an entire season on the same day that made binge-watching a real trend.
Then in the summer of 2013, the first series of Orange is the New Black arrived. Based on the book of the same name by Piper Kerman, it stars Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman, a blonde yuppie whose past with a drug running girlfriend leads to her being sentenced to 10 months in a minimum security prison. OITNB came from producer Jenji Kohan, creator of Weeds starring Mary Louise Parker (not a show I ever watched) and had a few familiar faces. Kate Mulgrew from Star Trek Voyager as Russian cook Red, Jason Biggs from the American Pie films as Piper’s fiance Larry, Natasha Lyonne, Taryn Manning and Laura Prepon plus a lot of new faces. The show can be hard to categorise – indeed, it’s moved from drama to comedy in award show categories as it really is a dramedy! Piper’s fish out of water story is the way in to a world peopled with so many fascinating and diverse characters.
It is this rich array of characters that made the show so good. Trans actress Laverne Cox is sensational, Uzo Adubo as Crazy Eyes has probably been the biggest breakout star, young black actresses Danielle Brooks as Taystee and Samira Wiley as Poussey were two of my favourites from the first season. The show is delightfully honest about the racial segregation of prison life. The Latinos, the blacks, the nice white people, the golden girls (older inmates) are all shown to be distinct groups who find a way to co-exist. Then there are the prison guards, led by the horrendous Pornstache (Pablo Schreiber), the seemingly well meaning but ultimately pretty nasty (and lesbian obsessed!) Mr Healey (Michael Harney) and the rest. This show probably has the biggest cast on ‘TV’ and each character is memorable and well drawn. In the second season, a major character turns out to be Miss Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat) a cancer stricken inmate we meet in the very first episode of season 1, then don’t see again, yet by the end of season 2, we are cheering her on as she has the very final shot.
It is this rich and diverse group of mainly women that are one of the joys of OITNB. They are all shapes, sizes and ages, some nice, but most flawed in one way or another. We get flashbacks to their pasts and learn more about them, but there is still so much to learn that you can see them not running out of stories for a long time.
One of the major storylines of the first season was Piper’s relationship with her fiance Larry and her reunion with her former girlfriend Alex (Laura Prepon). Piper and Alex were a fascinating couple as neither of them are particularly good people! Piper might have been our entry into the world, but by the end of the season, Crazy Eyes says to her ‘you are not a nice person’ and it’s hard to disagree when we learn about the way she has behaved. However, you still root for them – and I love Laura Prepon! She’s so effortlessly sexy and stylish and the news she would not be in much of season 2 was bad news for Pipex fans. As it turned out, she was in 4 episodes only – the first and 3 at the end, but it looks like she’ll be back in Litchfield for season 3. (Hooray!)
The 3rd episode of the first season ‘Lesbian Request Denied’, directed by Jodie Foster, was one of the best, in that it explored one of the most interesting characters, hairdresser Sophia Bursett. Trans actress Laverne Cox is just wonderful in this and she has become one of the highest profile members of the cast. It also brought Crazy Eyes – or Suzanne – to the fore, when she falls for Piper but doesn’t take rejection well!
The first season was very well received and made many end of year top ten lists by TV critics. Again, Netflix’s release schedule was a factor. I know I watched the 10 episodes in a weekend and just loved it! As well as all these characters, the scripts were fantastic, with jokes (often extremely rude ones!) and so many brilliant literary references. I particularly liked Piper threatening a kid using a Rilke reference and Crazy Eyes’ request to play a theatrical role like Lady Macbeth, or Claire Huxtable!
The second season had a lot to live up to and June 2014 was eagerly anticipated. While not as perfect as season 1, season 2 was also brilliant but much less comfortable. A new inmate Vee (Lorraine Toussaint) was one of the scariest and meanest characters to be seen in prison since The Freak on Prisoner Cell Block H! The way she manipulates and divides the girls was painful to watch. The previously joyous Taystee splitting with best pal Poussey and becoming one of Vee’s thugs was hard to see. Vee’s rivalry with Red and the escalation of that battle was one of the main themes that ran through the season. Vee really did get what she deserved however!
Season 2 definitely saw less of Piper as the lead, and the show was more of an ensemble than ever. Little Alex and Pornstache largely absent, other characters rose to feature more prominently like Black Cindy, Miss Rosa, Gloria and the golden girls. The prison was definitely a less cosy place. We also got less of Piper’s extended family. Despite the real life Piper marrying Larry, it looks unlikely he’ll be around that much as he and Piper split up when he hooked up with her best friend Polly late in season 2, but to be honest, the Larry bits of the show have always been one of the less successful parts.
The worst thing about OITNB is that there is a year between updates! The binge watch experience is great for gulping it down, and this is a show that can definitely be re-watched (I watched the first series 3 times through almost straight away, only watched season 2 twice so far) but it is a LOOOOONG time until June 2015!
It is hard to imagine a show like this being on TV, with no young glamorous stars (although the girls scrub up pretty well for all the awards shows they have been on lately!) but it is one of the richest and most immersive and involving shows around. Touching, hilarious, surreal – everyone has their favourite inmate. (For me, Suzanne, Alex, Sophia, Nicky, Miss Claudette, Taystee but it could be Flaca, Maritza, Red, Poussey, Black Cindy, even Piper!)
Fingers crossed that they maintain the quality – and roll on June!