Archives for posts with tag: Orange Is The New Black

I’m sure regular readers are all too aware of my love for Orange Is The New Black. I genuinely consider it to be on the most original shows out there. You can laugh your head off at one scene and be heartbroken by the next. And I have waxed lyrical about the diversity of the cast, but I will say it again for those at the back – this is THE show that waves the flag for diversity.

My love did dim a little last season. There was too much darkness, too much oppression, too many people at warm. OITNB is skilled at doing those little uplifting moments, but there were too few last time.

Yet this repressive atmosphere is what has led to the catatonic energy of season 5, which centres on a riot. The emotional explosions only work because so much was contained previously. It also is where the viewer gets a big payoff. We have followed these characters for quite some time now and know them. Seeing the breadth of reactions is powerful. We have the Hawaiian woman who chooses to hide, the meth heads who decide to become guards, and those who seek to exploit it purely for their own gain.

The humour is right back in full flow. Big Boo, so dislikeable at times early on, has become a one-liner machine and her growing friendship with Pennsatucky is one of the most rewarding sub-plots in the show. Meanwhile, Red on amphetamines has to be one of the most perfectly pitched pieces of slapstick I have seen.

The heartbreak is here too though. So-So’s reaction to Poussey’s death has been well played, subtle little moments of private grief interspersed with explosions of anger. It is a grief that burns away and eats you from the inside.

The star of this season though is Taystee. Having spent most of the first four seasons as a comedic foil or second-in-command, she is now the leader. She is the one who is driving through change. This isn’t just revenge on the guards, or even salvaging something from Poussey’s death. This is about changing the entire culture of the prison and restoring humanity. The failure of those outside to grasp this – both the media and the corporations – is a damning indictment of how fair minded those of us we consider ‘civilised’ actually are.

If I could make one change, it is that I feel that there are some stories still not being told. Take the Nazis, who suddenly appeared last season. Why are they who they are? Everyone else is given a reason for their behaviour, why not them? In making the case for diversity, is this show failing to explore the mind set of those who oppose it?

This show has always been a social commentary. It has, at times, lost this too soapiness and titillation. But this time, it seems to be pitched just right. This should be compulsory viewing for all those that think the private sector is the answer to our problems or that we can dehumanise sub-sections of our society without a cost. Yet they are the very people that will not watch it.

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The new season of your favourite shows being uploaded on Netflix is like receiving a present on your birthday. It comes round once a year, you count down and then you get to indulge. Everyone has their favourite, and for me it is Orange is the New Black.

I love it. For a huge, sprawling cast, it somehow manages to ensure you get behind or stand against every single one. Sometimes, you find your position on people moving as the seasons progress. Big Boo always seemed selfish and cruel, until her unlikely friendship with Doggett and a glimpse into her life story made me warm to her. In reverse, Piper has gone for someone I’m rooting to survive and thrive to being the character who I would least miss if she was shanked.

In fact, this transformation in Piper from naïve and kind to merciless kingpin is one of the shows only flaws. The fact is, I don’t buy it. Even though the show has been running for four years, the timescale is a lot shorter than that within the show, perhaps not even a year. I don’t believe that someone who was essentially an outsider can climb to the top without challenge. Having said that, I’m only four episodes in, so maybe she does get overthrown (no spoilers please).

Other than that, it is still glorious. Many of the originals are still going strong. Red, always a favourite, is brilliant as ever. Taystee is rising in my opinion each episode. Suzanne still gets the best lines, even if it is only two per episode. Some of the new characters are showing real spark too. Lolly, in particular, is fantastic. I look forward to seeing her backstory, as well as how she survives her prison experience.

The humour is still there as well. This, for me, drives the show as much as the moments of heartbreak. Again, Lolly is a real boon here. I loved the scene in the first episode where she was directing Alex on how to be dead for their ‘photoshoot’. It is moments like this that stop the show collapsing under the weight of its worthiness.

Not that there isn’t still an emotional heart. Healey’s episode, in particular, had just the right tinge of heartbreak to show how such an emotionally controlling man was formed. Just because he is a guard doesn’t mean he isn’t in prison as well.

So, yes, this is a present. One I have gratefully received. But like all presents, it is best not to be greedy with it. Watch slowly, allow it to enwrap you and you will never tire of it.

A few weeks ago I was bemoaning the coming of summer and its absence of decent television. Frankly, the problem is becoming more acute. It is almost as if the main channels forgot there was no World Cup (bar the women’s, which despite being no doubt excellent was shunted off to minor channels) or Olympics, or even European Championships to show, and are no randomly cobbling together hours of filler until autumn comes and they can unleash series 29 of their staple reality/talent programme.

Again, I turn to Netflix, this time to Orange Is the New Black. This is the show that instantly comes into my head when I think of Netflix, largely because it is entirely their baby, and a highly successful one at that. There are several reasons to laud it: the cast is female-centric but not in a clicky-heels Sex and the City kind of way, and is ethnically diverse. It is perhaps showing us the still underlying racial tensions in the 21st-century Western world than most news and documentaries can.

Obviously this is all excellent stuff, but means nothing if it isn’t engaging and smart, which praise be it is. The thread of plots move along nicely and are well-paced, with short little wisps of stories like the mysterious chicken (which still has me howling with laughter) playing out alongside slowly unfurling narratives, like Bennet’s and Daya’s relationship, creeping up the intensity until you are sucked into it. The ability to move from black comedy to gut-wrenching tragedy is masterful, and a lesson to other dramas.

Such is its powers, the show has managed to make the main cast feel like friends. Of course, Piper is nominally our guide to everyone, but OITNB has long since moved on from being purely her story. We know how Doggett became an evangelical, right-wing Christian and the hypocrisy behind it, why Red is both powerful matriarch and partially responsible for her family’s plight and why Piper and Vause’s relationship is so fractured yet undeniably still there. The friendships within the cast feel real as well, as different ethnic groups rally round the weakest member of their gang to protect them from others.

There are those in the TV community who believe that within the next decade or so there will be no place for mainstream channels or in scheduling, that everything you want to watch will be uploaded to your smart TV at the start of the week and will be sitting there waiting for you to watch it, like one uber-Sky plus box. With the growth of Netflix and its rivals you can see why, and if it produces more programmes of this quality, I won’t be stopping it.

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.