Jailhouse awakenings

Netflix’s latest series ‘Orange Is the New Black’ offers a unique interpretation of prison life.

August 4, 2013 20:40
3 minute read.
JTAYLOR SCHILLING (left) plays a fresh-faced Brooklynite sentenced to 15 months.

TAYLOR SCHILLING 370. (photo credit: collider.com)

When HBO launched its own original content in the mid-1990s, the network was praised for its raw, innovative and cutting- edge lineup. Critics heralded The Larry Sanders Show, Sex and the City and The Sopranos for reinventing the landscape of network television.

Now, 15 years later, Netflix – the online videostreaming company – has found itself in a similar position but has gone one step further. With the debut of its remake of the BBC miniseries House of Cards, Hemlock Grove and the resurrection of the cult hit Arrested Development (which, combined, snagged 14 Emmy nominations earlier this month), Netflix has found itself at the forefront of redefining how viewers watch television.

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Its newest offering, Orange Is the New Black, continues to demonstrate to its competitors that it is a force to be reckoned with in the world of original programming.

The show tells the story of Piper Chapman, whose past comes back to haunt her when she is convicted for smuggling money for her drugdealing girlfriend – a crime she committed a decade ago.

In some ways, creator Jenji Kohan (of Weeds fame) repeats much of what pop culture has taught us about prison: Nothing is free. The food is horrible. And rape scenes are inevitable.

But in her depiction of this all-women’s prison, Kohan goes beyond the stereotype and actually brings something unique to the table. Underneath the many harrowing scenes where characters harass, assault and insult each other lies an unexpected degree of warmth and empathy among the prisoners.

Through flashbacks, the audience gradually learns the story of each inmate and discovers the reasons for a character’s dead eyes, tight-lipped smile or perpetual grimace.

As for the acting, relative newcomer Taylor Schilling, with her doe eyes and flawless white porcelain teeth, is a good fit for playing a woman who must come to terms with her new stark reality.

And how nice it is to see Jason Biggs – a relic from the seemingly endless and banal teen comedies of the 1990s – step back into the spotlight as Chapman’s dutifully loyal fiancé eagerly waiting for her release.

The real revelation, though, is Laura Prepon who plays Alex Vouse, the girlfriend whom Chapman believes is responsible for incriminating her. Last remembered for sporting fiery red hair as Donna Pinciotti in That ’70s Show, Prepon has taken on a decidedly more mature and nuanced role.

Initially we learn of Vouse through Chapman’s recollection of her past. During these memories, Vouse comes across as a manipulative seductress who snared Chapman into doing her bidding.

Now incarcerated in the same prison as Chapman, that narrative changes quickly when it becomes clear that beneath Vouse’s façade of a hard-nosed criminal lies a woman with a soft, even vulnerable, side.

Some may call Orange Is the New Black a feminist interpretation of the prison story. And, in many ways, it is. It features a cast of women who through ignorance, poverty and bad luck have made poor life decisions and are now paying a heavy price. However, there is never a moment where a character asks for pity or places blame elsewhere. Each character is fiercely independent and finds her own unique way to navigate her intricate and terrifying world.

In the first episode, Chapman meets with her male counselor, who gives her a run-down of what to expect for the duration of her sentence and attempts to downplay her worst fears about prison.

“This isn’t Oz,” he says, referring to HBO’s wildly popular show about male inmates.

This is true. Orange Is the New Black is not Oz. But with its surreal, dark and, at times, funny portrayal of incarceration, the viewers certainly don’t feel like they are in Kansas anymore, either.

Orange Is the New Black can be seen on HOT 3 and HOT VOD

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