I have to be honest, I don’t do grim dramas. Heap all the critical praise you want on shows like Breaking Bad, The Wire or Sons of Anarchy, I won’t be watching them. Everyone on them looks like they smell and I have enough on trying to work out the moral compass of real people, without trying to start doing so for fictional characters. Besides, so much praise has been devoted to these shows that I can only feel that I would be disappointed. If the first episode doesn’t leave me feeling every single emotion, then the show will have been oversold.

Which makes me wonder how and why I got sucked into Orange Is The New Black. It has all the marks of the above shows (grim premise, critical adoration, all the characters belonging in some strange hinterland between good and evil) yet I feel a love for it that I thought it would be impossible to ignite. How can the tale of a middle-class white woman being sent to prison and facing a ridiculous yet believable set of challenges succeed where ‘teacher gets cancer and starts making drugs’ or ‘the political battles of a gang of Hells Angels’ failed?

Well, here is my breakdown in 3 simple steps:

1) the premise: not as out-and-out depressing as it first appears. For a start, whilst being in prison is not shown to be a luxury break, nor is it a relentless tale of woe. Yes there is the stereotypically malevolent guard, with added creepy porn-star moustache. Some of the prisoners clearly have mental health issues, many of which are not taken seriously. And the inmates are constantly reminded that they are at the bottom of society’s food chain. Despite all this, there is some light. Tribes form and look out for other members of the group. Many of the early episodes deal with lead character Piper Chapman’s attempts to learnt the moral code of her group.  The gallows humour is rife. Yes it is gritty, and not for the faint-hearted either in terms of visuals or language, but you don’t walk away from it wanting to take Prozac.

2) the characters: this may be Chapman’s tale, but that doesn’t mean that this is a one-woman show. Side-characters have plenty of layers and some even get their own back story. Plotlines bubble away in the background before stepping forward at the right moment. Everyone has their favourite: mine is Red, the Russian chef played by Kate Mulgrew. Hers is a tale of the American Dream gone sour thanks to a mixture of circumstance and bad judgement. She is the surrogate mother to many, but is judge, jury and executioner to those who cross her.

3) what it has to say: looking through the back stories of many of the characters, you realise there is a common theme to many of their crimes: they committed them for somebody else. Sophia committed credit card fraud to earn her son’s love. Miss Claudette murdered a man who was a rapist and probably a supremacist too, and was defending her employees honour. Chapman smuggled drugs out of love for her then girlfriend. Vicky Pryce got a kicking in the press recently for suggesting many women are in prison because of the men in their lives, but actually she probably isn’t wrong. And then there are the clear division between races, with black and Latino prisoners dominating the ‘ghettos’ of the prison whilst white prisoners get proper cells. Justice most certainly is not colour-blind.

OITNB is a great example of how good storytelling drives a drama. It does what all TV shows should do; it opens a world which we know little of, and invites us in with the promise we can leave at anytime if we want to. I’m sure those shows I listed at the start do as well, but with as much heart as this one? I doubt it.

Advertisements