TV Review: Orange is the New Black (2013)

Trying to decide whether or not ‘Orange is the New Black’ is worth your time? Don’t want to run the risk of ruining it by trying to find out more about it? Well, that was exactly my position around a month ago.

I couldn’t decide if the hit series would be something that I’d actually enjoy or if it was destined to be an anti-climax after such hype. I didn’t want to research it to the point that I found out more than I needed to know in case I did decide to give it chance but aside from the evident prison theme and resounding raving reviews, I knew virtually nothing more about it. None of the cast or crew looked or sounded familiar to me which I also found intriguing. In the end, curiosity got the better of me (as always) and so I decided to go ahead and watch the first series. It’s safe to say that after just two episodes, I was completely hooked. It was so far from an anti-climax, I can’t even begin to explain. My next step of course was reeling my boyfriend into it and a month later, here we are, having watched (and thoroughly enjoyed) both series whilst eagerly awaiting the third. So, if you find yourself in the same boat that I was regarding ‘Orange is the New Black’ then read on for my spoiler-free views of the drama series before deciding for yourself if it’s worth a “shot” (a pun that won’t make sense unless you’ve already watched!).

‘Orange is the New Black’ is an aptly named dark comedy drama series based on Piper Kerman’s real-life memoir of a year she spent in a women’s prison as a result of the involvement she played in a drug trafficking and money laundering scheme. Amidst an intense lesbian affair in which rebellion was a key factor, Piper made mistakes that would come back to bite her over a decade later (exactly where series one begins). Having been produced by Titled Productions and in association with Lionsgate, the first series was released on Netflix in July 2013 and has become something of a phenomenon since. It comes as no surprise that it has received critical acclaim universally as a result of its unique storyline, intricate characterisation and daring presentations of extremely sensitive subjects, including sexuality, racism and the shady elements of the criminal justice system.

The storyline is based primarily around Piper whose surname is changed to Chapman for the purpose of the series. (The real Piper was involved in production throughout which heightens both the verisimilitude and the appeal of the series.) The rest of the female characters within the prison however – who range between young and old, black and white, gay and straight, and every other binary opposite that you can think of – are just as significant as Piper herself, with their individual stories each taking precedence throughout different episodes. One thing is for certain – there are no flat characters in ‘Orange is the New Black’. Character development thrives throughout as each individual bares depth, complexity, some kind of personal struggle and an ultimate inner motive. Each woman strives for something that is important to them personally, no matter how minor it may seem to those on and off-screen. Even characters that seem blatantly basic at first glance, just like lunatic inmate Suzanne (better known as Crazy Eyes) have a heart rending story to tell.

‘Orange is the New Black’ manages to cleverly integrate comedy throughout its dark subplots but one of the most enticing things about the drama for me is that just like real life, it is full of conflict. Firstly in terms of imagery, the bright orange jumpsuits that the new inmates wear vividly contrast with the beige ones that everyone else wears. Intense acts of lesbian sex repeatedly take place in the chapel which is a brutal juxtaposition in itself, whilst the series also makes no effort to conceal the harsh reality that the women are grouped according to their nationalities. The black girls are friends and the white girls are friends – the binaries really couldn’t be presented more overtly if they tried! Naturally, the majority of the relationships between the prisoners are based on conflict. There is plenty of hate and rivalry within the prison whilst the characters themselves are conflicting and contradictory. For example, Crazy Eyes may be renowned for her seeming insanity but her views on life are some of the most logical. Piper may be engaged to Larry and persist that her past is behind her, but she still has strong feelings for her ex-lesbian lover Alex and proves to be far from innocent. Additionally the characters that seem tough and dangerous on the surface like Alex actually just want to be loved, whilst the ones that seem soft and sincere like Miss Claudette in series one, actually bare the darkest pasts.

In addition to clever and interesting characterisation, there are plenty of significant subliminal messages communicated throughout ‘Orange is the New Black’ that you will pick up on yourself if you do decide to watch. It also has to be said that the series does not glorify crime in any way shape or form, as you might from expect a typical prison drama. It actually demonstrates the brutality of prison life at times and the fear of those that experience it, whilst on the flip side creating copious amounts laughter too.

‘Orange is the New Black’ explores a wide range of compound themes and representations but what all of them stem from is essentially human emotion, and more specifically female emotion, which is the basis of the overall series. There are important male characters but there’s no hiding the fact that women are the focus here. Each woman has a personal story to either share or hide, each one has had their heart broken and each has made a grave mistake. They are ultimately fearless, power house women but the drama cleverly works to remind viewers that they are still human. Despite what they have done to land themselves in prison and what they might be capable of, we feel for them as their emotions are running high, their relationships are complex and their stories are absolutely gripping. These are believable characters with their lives brutally bared, and despite everything, they manage to be likeable. You’ll find yourself enthralled by all of them and quite frankly obsessed with others.

So, my concluding advice would definitely be to sign up to Netflix and get the first two series watched before the third one is released. In my opinion, it is most certainly worth your time and effort!


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