June 12 and the release of season 3 of Orange is the New Black is just far enough away to let me rewatch the first two seasons in a cozy binge.
This is what fascinates me: the series starts out with the main story being about Piper, the privileged white woman who ends up in prison. The regular cast members listed are Taylor Schilling, Michael Harney, Kate Mulgrew, Laura Prepon, Michelle Hurst and Jason Biggs. By the second & third episode some of the actors like Danielle Brooks, Uzo Aduba, Natasha Lyonne, and Laverne Cox begin to show up as guest stars.
Actors we’ve grown to love from the show such as Dascha Polanco, Selenis Levya and Samira Wiley were listed in the ending credits. They didn’t even show up as guest stars early in the series.
I’m struck by how much of the story of what’s happening in Litchfield Prison has moved away from the white characters and how the minor actors in the beginning like Samira Wiley have moved up to become regulars.
As viewers, we have become attached to characters that we might never have had a chance to like and respond to anywhere else but in Orange is the New Black. It’s brilliant how Jinji Kohan and the other writers let Crazy Eyes and Big Boo and Gloria and Nicky and Morello sneak their way into our hearts by bringing each to the front slowly. Not to mention Sister Ingalls (Beth Fowler) and Maritza (Diane Guerrero), Watson (Vicky Jeudy) and many others.
After two years, the most popular characters on OITNB are played by Samira Wiley, Danielle Brooks, Lea DeLaria and Laverne Cox. We no longer have to be lead into Litchfield stories by holding hands with someone white. Because of great writing, great acting talent, great personal presence, the most “other” members of the cast have become the default stars on Orange is the New Black. The story and the characters took off like a runaway train with a momentum that has carried us far from the original story in the book by Piper Kerman on which the series was based.
There are still white people in the story. Piper and Alex are still there, Red is still around, Nicky and Morello are still there, all the correctional officers and prison bosses are still there. But Piper is no longer the chief focus. In season 2, when Vee (Lorraine Toussaint) was around, much of the focus was on her and her effect on everyone at Litchfield. We’ll see where things go in season 3, but I’m 100% behind the diversity. I’d love to see one of the Hispanic characters become more known and important.
We’ve accepted the rainbow of characters who inhabit the prison, we care about them all. It’s a act of writing and planning by Jinji Kohan that I admire and respect. Diversity on our TV screens has an effect on the culture. I can’t wait to see how OITNB brings more of it in season 3.
What I’m waiting to see is the day when a black woman or a Hispanic woman or an Asian woman can be the lead character to lead us into a drama like this one.
I just finished the last episode of season 1 of Orange is the New Black. It’s a women in prison comedy/drama. My thought as I watched the last few seconds of the stunning season conclusion was, “Please let there be 1000 more episodes of this show.” It’s that good. It’s been renewed for another 13 episodes in season 2, so that only leaves 987 that I’ll be wanting. The first season of 13 episodes runs from September to December in the story of one year in prison, so 3 seasons of equal pacing might be more realistic to expect.
Orange is the New Black is a a Netflix original, created by Jenji Kohan of Weeds. I loved Weeds and I love Orange is the New Black. Apparently I am a huge Jenji Kohan fangirl. Kohan takes characters who are flawed, vulnerable, maybe a little off, often of questionable moral inclinations and she makes me care about them. Her characters aren’t Hannibal Lector, but they aren’t Mother Teresa either. They fall somewhere in between those two extremes, in a place where most of humanity struggles to get through the day.
Orange is the New Black stars Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman. The series is based on the book Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman. Piper Kerman and her TV self Piper Chapman are blonde, pretty, perfect WASPs who should be successes in life, and who don’t expect to find themselves figuring out how to survive in a prison.
Other well-known actors appearing in the series include Jason Biggs as Larry Bloom, Piper’s fiancee. Laura Prepon is Alex Vause, Piper’s lover from a decade ago. Alex was a drug smuggler and the reason Piper is in prison all these years later. And, oh yeah, Alex is in the same prison. Kate Mulgrew is Red, an inmate who runs the kitchen in the prison. Pablo Shreiber is a corrupt and cruel guard. Michael Harney plays the prison counselor. Natasha Lyonne is one of the inmates.
This is a big cast, the names I mentioned above are ones you may recognize. I feel like I should list the name of every single cast member because every performance is outstanding. Michelle Hurst, Taryn Manning, Samira Wiley, Uzo Aduba, Laverne Cox, Dascha Polanco, Matt McGorry – I didn’t mean to start listing them, but I can’t help it. And there are more names that should be applauded. Every character in this ensemble has a story, makes a real contribution, and every actor in the ensemble produces brilliant work. The acting is true, believable, powerful and at least 85% of the reason the series is so good. The other 15% goes to great writing. My math must be a little off, because I think there should be some percentage given for directing and costuming and set design and that Regina Spektor song at the beginning of every episode. Well, okay, I’ll say that the acting is at least 50% of the reason why this series is so good.
Can you give an entire cast an Emmy for best supporting actress?
A Few Mild Spoilers
Orange is the New Black is both a comedy and a punch-in-the-gut drama. There are a few laugh out loud moments and some running gags that will make you smile. A favorite running gag was the woman who was crying on the phone next to Piper each time she made a phone call. One scene where everyone in the cafeteria stood up and started dry humping everything in sight had me rolling on the floor.
There were moments of cruelty, fear, pain, and brokenness. There were moments of insight. There were moments of love. There are thieves, drug dealers and murderers – and those are just the people in charge of running the prison. There is fornication, masterbation, revenge, overdosing, insanity, sanity, rage, delusion and denial, pragmatism and surprising beauty. Storylines include race politics, religious politics, prison politics, uses for screwdrivers, Shakespearean recitations, and good hair. In short, this series has multitudes to offer and a cast that is capable of delivering it.
Our pretty blonde WASP princess heroine is afraid of everyone at first but soon finds that the women in prison are just like her. She finds people to respect and admire, and to like, which surprises her a bit. Taylor Schilling goes all out in this part. You can be sure there’s plenty of drama and tension involving in getting from fear to admiration.
There is love and relationship drama. With sex. Within the first 30 seconds of episode 1 we see Piper having lesbian shower sex with Alex and straight bathtub sex with Larry. Seems these two super clean moments were flashbacks to happier times as Piper takes her first prison shower, which wasn’t nearly as much fun.
Flashbacks are used often to reveal more about the characters. We see into their childhoods, meet the parents (or lack of parents), see the abuse or the quest for drugs, and learn about the crimes that brought each one to the prison.
One thing I liked about the flashbacks was that the actors could look more like we normally see them. In the prison garb, with no makeup, horrible hair, and possibly awful prosthetic teeth it was a little hard to match up actors faces with the images on imdb.com for the cast. (I do have a tendency to look at cast bios and photos while watching a show.) It took me nearly all 13 episodes to figure out that Taryn Manning was the person playing the crazed Jesus-freak character. That was partly because I could never catch her character’s name and partly because she looked so crazy-scary in the role. Damn, was she good, too.
Laura Prepon never looked bad. Not once. She had blonde hair in Are you There, Chelsea?. She’s been a redhead in some shows. She has black hair here and big black glasses. Her hair never seems to be stringy or wild and she doesn’t need makeup to be stunning. Which partly explains why Piper can’t stay away from her and we have the lovers triangle of Piper, Larry, and Alex through most of season 1. Larry, so straight and normal out there waiting in the real world – Alex, so gorgeous as she offers up her very warm body right here inside the walls. What’s a girl gonna do? I cast my vote for team Alex, drug smuggler though she is. Alex seems to love Piper with a beautiful eternal flame that makes poor Larry’s conditional acceptance pretty lame by comparison. If you’ve read the book and know how this all turns out, don’t rain on my team Alex parade, okay?
Netflix and Original Series
Netflix released House of Cards with Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright as its first original series. It was superb and I look forward to a second season of that series. Their second attempt Hemlock Grove was so bad I couldn’t watch it. They were 1 for 1 when this series came out, so I was unsure which way it was going to go.
Netflix struck gold once again with Jenji Kohan and Orange is the New Black. More like this please, Netflix.
Your turn. What do you think about Orange is the New Black?
Image Credits: Netflix.
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