Thursday, August 22, 2013

Lost In A Women’s Prison: Mixed Feelings On Orange Is The New Black Season One!

The Good: Acting, Moments of character growth and development.
The Bad: Unsympathetic characters, Soap opera moments, Predictability.
The Basics: Jenji Kohan continues her record of oddly misanthropic female characters with Orange Is The New Black Season One, a season that gets better as it goes along!

Netflix has managed, this very year, to become a real power in original television programming. With big Emmy nominations for the fourth season of Arrested Development (reviewed here!) and the American version of House Of Cards (season one is now reviewed here!), Netflix managed to trump the major established networks and cable networks to become a suddenly legitimate power in entertainment. So, when I started hearing buzz about Orange Is The New Black, I decided to give it a shot. My wife and I sat down and did a marathon of the thirteen episodes of the first season of Orange Is The New Black. Ironically, I was mildly excited about the show and my wife was utterly indifferent, but in the course of watching the show, we reversed our opinions and she came to absolutely love the first season and I found myself indifferent (though, I shall admit up front that the show gets better as it goes along).

Orange Is The New Black is the latest creation by Weeds creator Jenji Kohan and I am convinced I would have enjoyed the first season of Orange Is The New Black had I never seen Weeds. In fact, fans of Weeds will note a number of similarities between the two shows, especially with the seventh season’s beginning (reviewed here!). The thing is, given how self-absorbed and destructive her protagonists (Nancy Botwin and Piper Chapman, not to mention Orange Is The New Black’s Alex Voss) are, Jenji Kohan might well be the most misogynistic writer working on television today. While I absolutely loathed Nancy Botwin – and the acting of Mary-Louise Parker – Taylor Schilling actually impressed me as Piper Chapman on Orange Is The New Black and while other characters talk about her as a user, Piper never seems quite as bad as Nancy Botwin.

Orange Is The New Black is a dramedy, leaning more toward the dramatic side, focusing on Piper Chapman, a yuppie WASP whose past catches up with her abruptly shortly after she gets engaged to Larry Bloom. She is incarcerated at Litchfield Maximum Security Prison in New York where she finds her life and mental health challenged by herself, her ex-lover, and other inmates. Structurally, in its first season, Orange Is The New Black bears a startling resemblance to Lost (reviewed here!), where the island is replaced with a prison. The resemblance includes character flashbacks to illustrate how many of the inmates wound up in Litchfield (the similarity is so uncanny that at least one secondary character is featured solely for an episode when she is killed!), but the “hook” for Orange Is The New Black is nowhere near as strong as the one for Lost (and the show begins with a far less pleasant beginning).

Piper Chapman surrenders herself to Litchfield Correctional Facility the morning after her pregnant best friend (and business partner) and fiancé throw a going away party for her. Arriving at prison, she soon finds procedural obstacles (not having commissary money immediately means that she has to make footware for the shower out of maxi pads to avoid getting foot fungus) and predictable character conflicts. Despite feeling a crippling sense of isolation, she is aided by the senior prison guard, Sam Healy, who recognizes her as being both better off than most of the inmates and the victim of some serious bad luck (Piper carried a bag full of drug money ten years prior, a crime that had a statute of limitations of twelve years!).

When Piper discovers that the woman she ran the money for, Alex Voss, is at Litchfield with her, she goes out of her way to avoid Voss, who was her lover at the time. On the outside, Larry Bloom (Piper’s fiancé) struggles to launch his writing career and Piper’s best friend, Polly struggles to get their emerging business off the ground while Piper is in prison. To make her life easier, Larry tells Piper that Alex had nothing to do with her incarceration (though it is a lie; Alex named Piper to get a reduced sentence), which opens Piper up to a friendship with Alex. Alex and Piper’s friendship troubles Sam Healy who not only has Piper condemned to Solitary, but tells Larry about Alex and Piper hooking up (which, ironically, they had not done when Sam called Larry!). As Piper’s life spins out of control, she tries to rely upon both Larry and Alex, but feels distance from Larry following his appearance on an NPR radio show that causes Piper friction around the prison. In the wake of the radio show, Alex finds herself on the outs with both Larry and Alex and the target of a crazed Evangelical who blames Piper for her nervous breakdown.

The plot of Orange Is The New Black utilizes a number of soap opera conceits in its first season. Larry and Alex lie to Piper repeatedly and some of the big moments of the season are supposed to be when their various truths come out, but because the lies are so big and so obvious, their revelations seem more formulaic and predictable, as opposed to truly audacious or surprising. So, too, is the inevitable sexual relationship between Piper and Alex. The conceit of having both of the women locked up in the same facility was virtually begging for the reunion, so despite the circumstances of their lovemaking, the moment it happens is less great character development and more the result of preordained structure.

What makes the beginning of the first season of Orange Is The New Black bearable are the supporting characters. Strong and intriguing individuals like Red (played with absolute brilliance by Kate Mulgrew) and Sophia Burset, who is a transgendered inmate, make it much easier to stick with the banal drama of Piper Chapman until the series picks up with the murderous “Pennsatucky” in the latter half of the season. Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett is an Evangelical Christian fundamentalist who has been incarcerated for killing an abortion doctor. Inside Litchfield, she has garnered a following and when she gets Piper thrown into solitary using Healy, Piper and Alex get revenge through pranks that reveal just how mentally unbalances Doggett is.

Orange Is The New Black has a decent collection of characters and in the first season, the primary characters include:

Piper Chapman – A young thirtysomething, she surrenders to Litchfield when her ten year-old crime of (once) getting drug money around Customs comes back to haunt her. Her fiance’s father was her lawyer and advised her to plea out. Inside prison, she tries to lay low and fly right, but she is almost immediately the object of affection for a prisoner who seems dangerously unbalanced and declares that Chapman is now her wife. When lets the woman down and moves into a bunkroom with an older inmate (in the black dormitory), Piper manages to keep her distance from Alex. After reconciling with Red, accidentally stealing a screwdriver and reconnecting with her ex-lover, Piper finds herself truly alone in the world,

Larry Bloom – Piper’s fiancé who starts her incarceration very supportive. A friend of Piper’s slacker brother, Larry tries to get a piece into print. When he manages to get a relationship column into The New York Times, he reveals secrets about Alex’s fellow prisoners and the conditions inside Litchfield. After a radio program that makes things even worse for her, Larry comes unspooled and jumps between trying to marry Piper right away and dumping her entirely,

Alex Voss – A convicted drug runner, she manipulates circumstances so Piper is incarcerated at Litchfield. Annoyed by how Piper is keeping her distance, she slowly comes around after Piper asks her for forgiveness. Alex, however, sees Piper for who she is and – despite getting romantically involved with her again – refuses to truly trust her,

Red – A Russian mob wife, she runs the kitchen. When Piper insults the cooking on her first day, Red starts starving her out. But when Piper makes her a salve for her ailing back, she comes around. Red acts as a mother to her kitchen staff. While she manages to get ingredients she needs smuggled in, she refuses to do anything with drugs. That puts her at odds with the guard, Mendez, with whom she goes to war,

Miss Claudette – Piper’s roommate who may be a murderer who avenged the abuse of one of her cleaning girls. She has long been in love with the boy who helped her get acclimated when she was brought to the U.S. She is stern and clean and has a ray of light that finally leads her to consider filing an appeal,

Nicky Nichols – One of Piper’s first friends, she was a druggie and has been having a relationship with Morello. When Morello decides to be faithful to her fiancé, Nicky turns to Alex,

Daya – An inmate who comes in at the same time as Piper, she has a flirtatious relationship with John Bennett. When their illicit romance turns serious, they find themselves in real trouble when Bennett gets her pregnant,

John Bennett – A war veteran, he is a benevolent guard. Despite how illegal it is, he finds himself attracted to Daya, resists her mother’s advances, and struggles to keep professional otherwise. He is missing part of his leg, though not from an obvious cause,

George “Pornstache” Mendez – The most corrupt guard on the block, he gets drugs into Litchfield. He tries to use Red’s produce smuggler as a way to get drugs into the prison, which sets off a nasty series of events,

and Sam Healy – The senior guard, he seems instantly sympathetic as a somewhat sad man with a mail-order Russian bride who clearly loathes him. He tries taking Piper under his wing, but soon is lead to misinterpret her actions as conflicting with his personal morals. As events spin out of control in Litchfield, he crumbles and puts many people’s lives in jeopardy.

Orange Is The New Black may be plagued by plot and structural conceit issues, but it has amazing acting and generally interesting characters who have real depth to them. On the acting front, Taylor Schilling makes much more of an impression as Piper Chapman than she did in The Lucky One (reviewed here!). In fact, Schilling is sympathetic as Piper early on and she plays the horrors of human alienation remarkably well right off the bat.

Orange Is The New Black has an amazing supporting cast as well. Laura Prepon, Natasha Lyonne, Pablo Schreiber, Dascha Polanco, and Laverne Cox all present characters with serious depth and subtlety to them. None of their characters would be nearly as viable or realistic without the amazing performers playing them. Sadly, Jason Biggs gives the viewer nothing new or substantial as Larry Bloom.

The show’s acting, however, is ruled by the performances of Kate Mulgrew and Michael Harney. Kate Mulgrew illustrates all of the talent she possessed but was seldom capitalized upon in Star Trek: Voyager (reviewed here!). Playing the Russian cook, Red, Mulgrew is powerful and deeply human. Harney plays Sam Healy and the role is unlike anything he has ever played before. Harney has the long arc that allows him to give shading and realistic unveiling of Healy. Instantly sympathetic, Harney makes Healy smart and intuitive, but slowly unravels him from the stress of running Litchfield. Harney plays with sadness in his eyes and a weariness to his body language that is completely convincing.

Even though the acting is amazing and the characters are interesting, Orange Is The New Black is too tough a sell in its first season to get a recommendation from me. Yeah, I’m interested to see where it is going, but I find myself hoping that where the show journeys is more interesting and original than where it has been.

For other works featuring Michael Harney, please visit my reviews of:
NYPD Blue - Season Four
NYPD Blue - Season Three
NYPD Blue - Season Two
NYPD Blue - Season One
“Honor Among Thieves” - Star Trek: Deep Space Nine


For other television reviews, please check out my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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