Orange is the New Black Review

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It really wins out with its critical and sarcastic look at the lives of these women and what put them there

by Simon Crust May 15, 2014 at 8:06 AM

  • Movies review

    Orange is the New Black Review

    Heart-warming and heart-breaking – often in the same scene; Orange is the New Black takes an unconventional setting and produces a comedy drama of simple enjoyment.

    Netflix are fast becoming a force to be reckoned with in regards of their in-house produced TV material; free as they are from the rigours of network interference. With the acclaimed House of Cards being their best-known and most recognisable hit, the subject of tonight’s feature is fast catching it up in terms of numbers, recognition and sheer gutsy storytelling (indeed it actually out performed its peers in both viewers and views per week when it first aired in 2013). The show is based on the true experiences of one Piper Kerman who was indicted and incarcerated for money laundering and wrote about it in a memoir subtitled: My year in a woman’s prison.

    This inspiration was taken by acclaimed writer/producer Jenji Kohan, whose credits include Mad About You, Sex and the City and, most famously, Weeds, and with her slightly stilted look on things (and Kerman on as consultant) makes light of, and delves deep into, the lives of women who are imprisoned for a variety of crimes as well as the culture, routines and relationships that develop within the confines of incarceration. It is billed as a comedy, and indeed there are some genuine laugh out loud moments, but where it really wins out is with its critical and, at times, sarcastic look at the lives of these women and what put them there; be that the system or their own actions.
    The lead role of Piper (name changed to Chapman for the series) is Taylor Schilling (of Argo fame), who looks uncannily like the real Piper, and gives a truly excellent performance as a woman of means who finds herself completely out of her comfort zone. When we first meet her she is light-hearted, loving and living life to the full; engaged to be married and happy with her lot, her life comes crashing down around her when a crime she committed ten years ago (when she was twenty two) comes back to haunt her and she is indicted and elects to self-sentence to take the gaol term.

    This is a huge shock to both her and her in-laws and family and a great deal of heartache and comedy is drawn for these few relationships alone. She is outstanding as the fallen women just trying to get along in this alien world, being both bright and crestfallen at the same time; she does so much without saying anything and you really do end up feeling for her every problem. It is important that we side with her, despite her being the criminal she is, as even though she has moved on, becoming a better person and trying to forget that part of her life, we have to know what motivated her then, and thus what drives her now; Schilling nails it every time.

    It gets comedy out of the situations and the ramifications that make up the daily life of an inmate

    The first episode naturally concentrates on her first day and the situations that lead to it. Using flashbacks the show makes use of elements from the past to highlight predicaments happening now. It works surprisingly well and this set up follows through into the series as a whole, making for a compelling watch. Each episode uses the same format showing that youth leads to experience and experience allows growth. And what makes the series even more absorbing is that this is not limited to the main protagonist. In fact episodes centre around the ancillary cast and sometimes to those further afield which reflects not only a great deal of respect towards the characters in the show, but also to the audience at large. It also means that the audience becomes emotionally invested in everyone's predicament and thus the whole show.

    Unlike say, Porridge, which was an out and out comedy with some serious elements in there to add drama; Orange is the New Black might better be called a drama with comedic elements; getting comedy out of the situations and the ramifications that make up the daily life of an inmate. It does not make light of crime, but rather the absurdity of a judicial system that can lock someone up for accidently reversing over a mail man for a longer sentence than a repeat offender on a drugs charge. It also greatly exaggerates situations from the original writings for dramatic purposes; otherwise the TV show might be somewhat dull! The changes, which at times are significant, actually embellish situations without becoming outlandish – and all allow a closing response which works within the confines of the show.

    It’s that heart-warming element that American shows of this ilk get so right so much of the time. But when it is funny, it is really funny. It is also not afraid of showing the seedier side, graphic depictions of lesbian sex, nudity and language; nothing is shied away from because there is no network or sponsor to satisfy - the show therefore looks and sounds real.

    We only have the first season on disc so far, the second season was commissioned before the first had even aired and a third has already been picked up – and I’m not surprised. The characters make the show, their individual stories as well as overreaching story arcs are compelling and enjoyable so I for one cannot wait for the next to arrive on disc. May not be to all tastes due to the graphic nature of the story telling, but for those brave enough to try, the show is a real winner. Recommended.

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