“Orange is the New Black” (2013) was created in a test tube for me

25 September 2013

So I’m already deep into the semester with a new lecture class, which means I spend most of my time prepping, grading, and hyperventilating. This makes it all the more important that I can watch an episode of Orange is the New Black on Netflix every couple of days to decompress. Because if there’s ever a show that overturned every hoary teevee trope, it’s the way this one has told a new story about women’s prison.

Janae says she is not scared of Miss Claudette

This show is amazing, and I’m pretty sure it was created because someone read my blog and said, “Let’s throw this bitch a bone: a show about women’s prison with a whole bunch of unknown actors of various races, sizes, and sexual orientations. This blogger will lose her shit.”

Which is pretty much what has happened. I only wish I had time to sit down and watch it all in a single popcorn and martini-fueled binge weekend. From the opening credits all the way through every single 60-minute rich episode, I’m in heaven.

If this seems at first like yet another story of a blonde girl who finds herself in strange and comical circumstances, you haven’t watched what’s really happening here. Sure, our protagonist is a WASPy blonde upper-middle class woman named Piper (Taylor Schilling) who enters the prison because a while back she transported drug money for a girlfriend — and the show gets a lot of its early raison d’être from Piper’s wide-eyed introduction to prison realities. Whoa, a Black woman they call Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) forms a crush on Piper! What will she do? Whoa, everyone in prison huddles in groups by race! Will Piper hang out with only white women?

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But it doesn’t take long before you realize that this is only partly a show about Piper, especially as successive episodes dedicate themselves to complex backstories for each of the key inmates. In fact, we should have anticipated this from the beginning, for the opening credits — featuring a montage of the faces of real and former female inmates — gives us intimate images of the eyes and freckles and piercings and wrinkles of real, non-WASPy faces.

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While Piper tries to maintain a relationship with her risk-averse fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs) — who goes on living a spectacularly comfortable New York life — her fellow inmates’ lives and intrigues become far more compelling. There’s the post-op trans Sophia (Laverne Cox), the prison’s hair stylist, whose estrogen pills are curtailed during budget cuts, and who forms a prickly, unlikely relationship with the incarcerated nun with the hope that she can persuade the nun to hand over her post-menopausal hormones. Cox plays this role with an extraordinary delicacy, particularly in scenes with Sophia’s family back home — the wife and son who remain supportive, despite the fact that she failed them when she used stolen credit cards to pay for the sex reassignment surgery.

orange-is-the-new-black-laverne-cox-1024x682Even the vindictive, whisper-tiny Bible-thumping redneck and former meth addict, Tiffany (Tamryn Manning), who gets played as more of a heavy than most of the characters, proves to have a method to her madness.

Question: will Tamryn Manning ever get another role after this besides as Bible-thumping crazies with rotted teeth and strong Southern accents?

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Among my Facebook friends there has been nothing but expressions of fast-burning love for Alex (Laura Prepon, formerly of the unwatchable That 70s Show and one of the very few recognizable faces here). Alex isn’t just tall, dark, and blessed with those eyebrows. Nor is she merely a woman who knows how to throw her shoulders back, how to level a heavy-lidded direct gaze at a gal, and how to choose a great pair of specs.

She’s also Piper’s former lover — the one who ran the drug cartel operations, the one who asked Piper to carry the money, and maybe the one who gave Piper’s name to the Feds … felicitously tossed into the same prison. She’s that one — The One? — with whom Piper carried on a long, passionate relationship charged in part by the riskiness of their work and the glamour of all that money. One look at Alex and I dare you not to start fantasizing. We know immediately that poor Larry, the hapless fiancé, has got himself a problem.

blgoitnb2Yes, Alex is one of those perfect fantasy objects, for whom no stint in prison is going to alter her impeccable eyebrow maintenance or lipstick choices. Yes, perhaps not all of us would run into such a vision while in prison. Yes, this feels a lot like one of those “let’s tempt our viewers to want Piper to go gay again!” kinds of teevee moments.

But although her character is used to forward the plot in particular ways (and to send my Facebook friends into orgasms of thrill), Alex is not the story here. Nor is Piper the story. The real story is the new narratives of possibility opened up by focusing on women.

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This goes so far beyond the famous Bechdel Test — that incredibly low standard for gauging how much a film gives a single thought to women — that you wonder whether you can ever go back to stomaching the rest. Let me just focus on one tiny thing here: women of different races in conversation with each other, in proximity to one another, fighting with/ hating/ distrusting/ accommodating/ getting to know one another.

Think about it. Can you think of any show, ever, in which this happened?

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So yes, creators of Orange is the New Black: my mind is officially blown. And best of all, Piper gradually becomes something very different than that wide-eyed woman who was immediately the favorite of the seemingly soft-hearted counsellor Healy. I can hardly wait for Season 2.

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8 Responses to ““Orange is the New Black” (2013) was created in a test tube for me”

  1. Becky Says:

    I wish I could add something really intelligent to your review, but all I can say is, “yes!”. I absolutely devoured this show, and I was thrilled with the arc of the plot after the first couple of episodes. Oh, I guess I could add that Laverne Cox is actually a transgender woman. Did they leave anything or anyone out?!

    • Didion Says:

      I didn’t know she’s actually transgender — and thank god for that. She’s just amazing, and that relationship with the nun … it’s so well done that it takes my breath away.


  2. Didion, you know how much I respect and honor your voice. I have had several people tell me to watch this show, but that it is rather violent. I ask you, should Robert and I start watching this show?

    • Didion Says:

      Hm. I’m somewhat surprised to hear this. There *is* violence in the show but it is never gratuitous; I might have more tolerance for a certain level of violence, but it never once occurred to me that a viewer might be disturbed by it. (It did occur to me that the gay sex scenes might disturb some viewers, but for wholly different reasons. 🙂 ) Overall I’d say run, don’t walk, and start watching immediately.

      Plus, it’s just hilarious. The characters are so, so good, and the way the scenarios play out seems to me utterly believable. I often found myself surprised by the way a storyline might run, and then wondered whether I was surprised simply because it was so unusual for a teevee dramedy. {happy sigh.}


      • Thank you, dear heart! I shall heed your advice and start watching it. I will let you know what we think of the show.

        Warm regards,
        Michael

      • Didion Says:

        I’m only sorry that you won’t have the added incentive of lusting after Alex with the rest of us. 🙂

        Apologies for being so AWOL from your blog recently, Michael … but I’m sure you can appreciate how the semester can swallow us alive.


      • Didion,

        Your comment about a character named Alex made me chuckle. Who knows, if she looks anything like our Dame Helen Mirren, I shall have lust in my heart. 🙂

        I know those of us in academia are indeed swamped. No apology necessary. Your voice is always welcomed and treasured when you find the time.

  3. Servetus Says:

    Is it wrong to admit that I stopped reading at “popcorn and martinis” and clicked “like”?


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