How I Spent My Women’s Prison Vacation: The First Season of Orange is the New Black

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Few “pilot” episodes of a TV show have ever made me cry. The problem with pilots is that they are supposed to cram a whole pile of information into 22 minutes or 42 minutes and don’t usually do a very good job of developing characters. I can think of three shows where the pilot made me weep: Freaks and Geeks, Enlightened and now Orange is the New Black. These three shows actually have quite a bit in common, but their biggest common element is that the pilot episode spends a lot of time introducing and then developing their central character: a nice, young, white woman who seems to have her shit together but doesn’t. I have to say after watching the whole season, I feel like I was duped in that first episode, and I’m all the happier for it.

(A note about spoilers: I wrote this post after watching the entire first season. There are spoilers below so if you haven’t seen the show, fire up Netflix and start binge watching!)

The show follows Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling, who can run through a range of emotions with her big, open eyes at the speed of a short distance runner) as she enters a women’s correctional facility. The story is based on a true one, written into a book with the  same title by Piper Kerman. I had/have no knowledge of the book aside from a fantastic story that I heard on The Moth Podcast about a month ago that made me inordinately excited for the show. Piper is a young, pretty, white, upper-middle class woman who surrenders herself to the authorities after she is named as an accomplice in a drug trafficking ring. To be precise, Piper carried drug money for the ring at the behest of her then girlfriend, Alex (Laura Prepon, who has much more range than her ironic and monotonous delivery suggests. She is better in this than anything else I’ve seen her in and has much more to do, too). It has been ten years since Piper did the deed and she is now engaged to a nice, young, Jewish man named Larry (Jason Biggs, gentle and affable until he’s not and very good). When Piper enters the prison she meets a gaggle of women of all shapes and colors and sizes. Along with Piper’s season long arc, the stories of these imprisoned women make up the bulk of the show. We often get glimpses into the back stories of these women as the season progresses. One of these women turns out to be Alex.

The whole thing plays an awful lot like summer camp (it takes itself about as seriously at times) making it the perfect summertime distraction. There are letters from home, love triangles and quadrangles blossoming at any moment, awkward moments in the shower, arts and crafts, a talent show (!) and the constant and distinct possibility of getting shivved.  So much praise has been heaped on this show that piling more on seems, at this point, redundant (but who am I to buck a trend? I will tell you right now that I plan to pile some more love on the love-fest). I love the show a great deal. There are moments in the show, especially with Piper and Alex and the rekindling of their relationship that are beautiful to watch. The acting is almost entirely fantastic. The show is a vehicle for women, many of the kind we would never normally see on TV, to play a myriad of messy, complicated roles. The story moves along at a brisk, sometimes breathtaking pace. The show is exceptional and refreshing when it comes to female sexuality, lesbian relationships, bisexuality and sex in general. There are specific episodes that, to me, are bordering on sublime. But there are some things about the show that just makes me stop in my tracks every so often wondering if what I’m watching is not amazing but maybe not very good.

First off, and most distracting, the score is perhaps the most unsubtle since Full House. Every moment in the show is accompanied by music that tells you exactly what you should be thinking and feeling. When something silly happens, silly music plays; when something supposedly romantic happens swelly, swoony music underscores the point. The problem is that I don’t often find the silly moments all that silly or the romantic moments all that romantic. It’s as if the show creators do not trust the audience to find its own way which is unfortunate. The score is doubly unfortunate because the show is inconsistently subtle and nuanced at the best of times.

Similarly, the secondary characters are a mix of lovingly, subtlety written and acted living, breathing humans and cartoon characters. For example, and mostly glaringly, the character Red played by Kate Mulgrew (who I’m sure has been fantastic in any number of films and TV shows that I have never seen) is a middle-aged Russian with a clown’s shock of dyed, red hair and a thick accent who runs the prison kitchen. Mulgrew is clearly having a great time with the part but the character is about as subtle as being hit in the face with a brick. I certainly wouldn’t say Mulgrew is bad in the show, she most definitely is not, she is just all surface. Sometimes it feels like Red is part of a different show, one with big breasted, big haired, Russian women. And tracksuits, lots of tracksuits. A show with jokes and punch lines and a laugh track.

Red’s backstory episode comes very early on in the season, perhaps because of Mulgrew’s cache and I’m half convinced that this was a mistake. A little bit later on in the season, after knowing more about Red in prison, I think her episode would have been easier to swallow. And, unfortunately, this makes Red’s emotionally charged scenes feel unearned. Orange is the New Black walks a tightrope of comedy and drama. Sometimes it works and sometimes it falls hard into the net below. The show wants to have it all ways: be a zany, funny, wackedy-shmackedy comedy, a sentimental melodrama (every emotion feels amplified by 100 which makes sense in such close quarters) and also be a very serious drama about the devastating effect that the prison system can have on inmates. I’m not saying that it is impossible to be all these things at once, it is just hard to balance. I don’t mean to heap all of this on one character either (I could have replaced Red with Piper’s wannabe prison wife, Crazy Eyes), Red is just the most obvious choice. Many of the other prisoners but most especially the guards and authority figures in the prison get short shrift too. The guards are a combination of incompetent buffoons and power mad captors and the men, especially, come across as mostly predatory creeps. This shorthand may simply be a problem with trying to pack in so many stories at once and I can imagine it will be remedied after more time.

But then, there is Taystee and Poussey, two black inmates, who may be the crowing achievement of the first season. In what is my favorite scene in the entire series so far, Taystee re-enters prison after her celebratory release, and the two have a candid conversation about it. Tasytee and Poussey’s friendship, seen in snippets throughout the season is playful and (from what we can tell) platonic. They play on a jungle gym of language and are clearly each other’s reason for getting up in the morning. When Tasytee leaves prison, Poussey almost, heartbreakingly, misses her chance to say goodbye to her best friend but ends up seeing Taystee off through an upstairs prison window. Taystee does a little dance of freedom for Poussey from the grounds below. When Taystee goes back to prison, Poussey is predictably upset and angry. Taystee explains though that there is nothing out there for her, that it is impossible for her to get a job, no one wants her around. In prison, she gets fed and she has a friend. We’ve heard it all a million times before but here it is a quiet moment between two people who have come to understand each other implicitly. It’s beautiful and perfect and sad and is the one of a handful of lovely moments where secondary characters feel exquisitely, honestly real.

(A note here about race that I feel utterly unqualified to talk about but feel compelled to bring up: early a character in the show says that the prison is segregated by race. The character calls it “tribal”. This is a fascinating notion from a dramatic perspective that the creators almost entirely do away with from the initial mention. From then on, the self-imposed racial segregation seems to be either non-existent or only utilized when convenient. This feels odd but maybe, hopefully will play a bigger part in Season 2).

There are other amazing characters on the show, too, like Yoga Jones and everyone’s best buddy, Nicky (played with wonderful warmth and a lion’s mane by Natasha Lyonne) but my favorite thing about the show though is the way it treats Piper’s story. We aren’t meant to see Piper as a good person amongst bad people. In fact, Piper is, more often that not, morally ambiguous. She is often incredibly hurtful, painfully selfish and has very few lasting convictions. She loves more than one person, is unfaithful and is often not very smart despite her upbringing. But the thing I love about the show is that it never demands that you think of her as a hero. Her decisions and stupidity have clear consequences. Piper can’t keep her mouth shut when she should and that gets her into trouble. The show doesn’t make moral judgements, deeply loves all of its characters but it is honest about how we can hurt each other.

I’ve heard it mentioned that Piper is unworthy of being the audience surrogate, that she is not the most interesting character on the show, that any one of these other women could be the one we follow into jail. I can’t argue against that notion except to say that perhaps Piper is, as Alex says to Larry, the problem. She is set up in one way – she sets herself up in one way – but turns into something wholly unlike that thing. Piper is not set up to have an arc where she learns about other people or have these dramatic revelations about how she can be a better person while in prison in the way that the audience might want. If anything, Piper gets worse, crazier, more uptight during her stay – and that seems real. She has moments of self-awareness but not many.

There is one moment, maybe my favorite Piper moment in the show, where she comes to understand that she has been mean to someone, as if this is the first time in her life that meanness has been possible. Not just nasty but truly, awfully, horribly mean. She wants to own up to the meanness at that moment but what we discover, through Piper’s and Alex’s flashbacks, that meanness might be Piper’s natural state. In prison, that’s what Piper is confronted by the most. Her own meanness – and that’s not what she’s serving time for.  For a woman like Piper, who has been taught all her life to be nice to other people, this is nothing short of a revelation.

At the end of the season, when Piper’s meanness turns into violence, it may be the beginning of her transition into one of TV’s great anti-heroes. She isn’t Don Draper yet but it is possible that she will get there someday. Piper’s fear, we learn, is that no one is there for her and no one loves her. She is constantly needs someone in her life and on her side. She uses other people to prop her up. At the end of the season she has lost everyone and has lost the person she thought she was. If no one wanted Taystee outside of prison, no one wants Piper anywhere. This is unusual state for a woman on TV or in movies – an angry, friendless, violent state. Yes, she is an attractive woman with seemingly every opportunity in the world. And she is gloriously ugly on the inside.

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