When it comes to binge-worthy TV gold, Netflix have hit the jackpot with their self-produced prison phenomenon ‘Orange is the New Black.’
First aired in July 2013, the funny yet hard-hitting drama written by ‘Weeds’ Writer, Jenji Cohan, has grown exponentially since the release of series 2 last month. Based on the gripping autobiography of the same name, the series follows Piper Chapman (Taylor Shilling) as she is sentenced to a year in a federal women’s prison for a crime she committed 10 years prior.
As the show progresses, the innocent-looking New Yorker begins to reveal the colourful past which landed her in Litchfield. Peppered with lesbian lovers, laundering drug money and international travel, her stereotypical appearances and suburban life is challenged for her as a character and for us as a viewer.
Though the cast is made up of these similar, pre-meditated prison archetypes (the Nun, the transgender, the druggies, the ghetto princesses), these first impressions of each character are unravelled and altered through Pipers eyes, and a series of character flash-backs; as Chapman gets to know her prison family more and more, as do we. Rather than fulfilling our first-impressions, we become accustomed to empathise with the characters, and see them as the ‘goodies’ in opposition of the villainous roles of the prison CO’s and staff.
Well-edited recollections not only give depth to the inmates of Litchfield, but also captures Piper’s own life and journey; from rebellious 23 year old, to the settled and happily engaged 30-something today. Her past relationship with the sultry Alex (Laura Prepon) is re-visited inside the camp, and her engagement to Jewish writer and husband-to-be, Larry, begins to strain. A rollercoaster of emotions of love, hate, resentment and friendship grow throughout the plot and Cohen has us rooting for the unlikely lovers.
The love-triangle we witness between Piper, Alex and Larry further challenges our perceptions of our protagonist, and of the woman behind the novel itself… middle-class, well-educated straight girls rarely have a hidden background of illicit lovers and drugs, after all!
Shilling’s performance as Piper is second to none – expressing the innocence of a woman out of her depth, yet the intriguing confidence of her power, self-control and independence inside the prison walls. I think for OITNB, however, the true fandom took over thanks to the exceptional casting of other characters, for example Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba), Red (Kate Mulgrew) and Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), and their ability to stretch a character – and stereotype – into something unexpected and vulnerable.
The gripping popularity of the show is a direct reflection of the vast audience it can appeal to. The characters and narratives cover issues such as race, sexuality, loss and love, and provides an insight (realistic or not) into the mind set of prisoners and a life which most viewers are unaware of. Whether you’re black, white, Latino, gay, straight, old or young – there is a character you can relate to!
With series 3 to air in early 2015, the success of the show is sure to remain. The cliff-hanger endings of each series grip the audience to want more, and I’m sure the strong fan base will continue to grow. One thing’s for sure – you can’t read a paper or turn on the TV without seeing a reference for the cellmates somewhere! It seems orange really is the new black.