Orange is the New Black: too hot for TV

This online series set in a women’s prison has more bite than any comedy on the box.

When a series boasts a cast including ex-American Pie actors and Captain Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager, you know you’re in for something different. Sure enough, true to its oddball promise Orange is the New Black, the new Netflix success story, has prompted a flurry of adulations from the press for unmasking stories seldom addressed in the mainstream – all with a dose of humour.

A former romance with an international drug trafficker comes back to haunt our protagonist, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), as she is ripped from her comfortable middle-class existence to serve time in a federal prison for smuggling. Our eyes and ears throughout the series, Chapman is forced to leave behind her fiancée, played by Jason Biggs, and stake her place in an institution bound by racial ties and Sapphic desire. This good-girl-gone-bad character aggravates most of her fellow inmates by lamenting the loss of her quinoa-eating, yuppie lifestyle; but somehow, in a series of belief-suspending moments, other prisoners queue up to offer emotional support to the pretty white girl in distress. Though accepted in the prison, her irritating personality is still inflicted upon the viewer, with soft-focus flashbacks to Sunday mornings with her partner and endless self-congratulating mentions of her career as an ‘artisanal bath-product maker’.

The hope is that Piper’s character is deliberately annoying - the audience invited to judge her in relation to those inmates who have grown up in tough circumstances. However, according to the show’s creator Jenji Kohan, she also plays a role in unearthing the viewer’s own prejudices. The show’s other characters are drawn from the dregs of American society that we expect to end up in prison: poor blacks, Latinas and white trash, all unflinchingly portrayed at their most stereotypical. Piper is, as Kohan puts it ‘a gateway drug’ to allow the middle-income audience a way into the story. In turn, the audience becomes a participant in the rampant racial stereotypes; we can only bear to view women born into extreme disadvantage by sympathising with the experiences of one outsider who gets thrown in with them.

Largely, the storyline stays true to the prison-drama tropes of sexual harassment, violence and intimidation. But perhaps the most unsettling thing about Orange is the New Black is it’s hackneyed attempts at comedy. Throughout the episodes, cringe-laden dialogue - the kind where every statement is met with a shrill, incredulous ‘seriously?!’ – plays out against a backdrop of desolation and emotional trauma. It’s strange mix, but there are some undoubtedly hilarious moments. Of particular note is Kate Mulgrew, ex-Star Trek star. In the show she plays a Russian doyenne in control of the prison’s kitchen who attempts to starve the protagonist to death. There is also an elderly Haitian character, a sort of re-vamped, female Mr T, who uses her mellow tones to implore everyone to ‘stop their foolishness’.

Of course, discussion of Orange is the New Black must include its unique sexual dynamics. This small, goldfish-bowl world of the female prison is one where homosexual relations flourish without stigma. With every character seemingly romantically involved with another, the show has won praise for its unflinching portrayal of sexuality behind bars. Several women have beaus on the outside and girlfriends on the inside; or ‘gay-for-stay’ in the lingo. Although peppered with stock characters like the ultra-butch man-woman, most of the characters seem genuinely fluid in their relationships, both with men and women. It’s something not often seen on TV and, while striking, the relationships seem credible and unforced.

While its crummy dialogue and heavy-handed characterisations puts one in mind of a botched Aaron Sorkin outing, Orange is the New Black has a sincerity and a bite that is often missing from TV drama. Under the cover of comedy, the audience encounter a world that is too often side-lined in favour of the safe and the family friendly. And, unlike Sorkin’s work, you’re left to make up your own mind about what you see, rather than be beaten over the head by an inelegant liberal agenda. Orange is the New Black is a show with wide appeal that can be taken seriously or dismissed as puerile trash. Encompassing both the best and worst of prime-time fare, the audience is left guessing.

Emmet Livingstone is a writer living in Montreal and a former intern at spiked.

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