Nothing can derail a good television show like the need to bring in some kind of ‘issue’; when the story and characters take a backseat for the sake of conveying a social message, it soon becomes little more than a bad episode of a children’s show. Nonetheless, the emotional effect of a well-told story can be more powerful, persuasive and eye-opening than most journalistic exposes or deliberately shocking documentaries. In making details fit a fictional frame, the show navigates between the twin storms of misrepresentation and a hollow show that simply aims to ram home a message, which can be very tricky indeed. With all that in mind, there are a lot of reasons to be cynical about Netflix’s latest original show: Orange is the New Black.
The show follows the story of Piper; a young, white, blonde, middle-class American woman, Piper is happily living with her boyfriend in New York and making plans to start a soap company with her best friend… that is, until her wild past catches up with her. It turns out that in her early twenties, having dropped out of college and eager for adventure, she flew around the world with her older girlfriend, who happened to be a high ranking member of an international drug cartel. Now, ten years on, the cartel has been broken up by the police, and Piper has been arrested for once smuggling a case of drug money for her old girlfriend, Alex.
The story is based on a memoir of the same name, although by most accounts, it is used as more of a springboard than a strict outline. The opening is especially moving and funny as Piper turns up at the prison with her fiancé, Larry, to begin her sentence, armed with the reading she’s done to ‘prepare’ and making Larry promise not to watch Mad Men until she is released. This immediately sets up the show as a fish-out-of-water story. However, this is also one of the initially potential problems with Orange. The HBO prison show, Oz, also featured an unknowing, white protagonist from a middle-class background, acting as a sort of guide to the viewer in this less-privileged world. It is disturbing to think that, ten years later, so little has changed that this device is still needed to sell the show, especially with the relative productive freedoms of Netflix. It is even more disturbing that in order to make a female dominated show, it needs to be set in a woman’s prison.
Yet, for all the cynicism fighting against it before an episode has even been seen, Orange more than deserves a chance. At times, it veers dangerously close to an apple-pie re-education of Piper, with her ‘character development’ monologues appearing quite randomly within the progress of the plot. However, Orange has a heart that raises it above these traps – not only does Piper realise she is responsible for her actions (and that she is no better than any of the other inmates), but neither her character nor the show itself asks us to feel sorry for her.
One of the show’s greatest strengths is its characters; many develop in unexpected ways, and have fascinating yet believable backstories. But, most importantly, they feel real. Even the guards are made human, from the power-happy and gloriously nicknamed ‘Pornstache’, to the awkward and repressed middle-aged Healy, no one in the show feels inorganic or simply included as a plot device. There is a great sense that whatever happens is driven by these characters; all of them only human and equally at the mercy of each other.
Best of all, the supporting characters are all brilliantly written and acted, making you want to see much more of them rather than waiting to return to the main plot. At times their backstories may feel a little like box-ticking, with each of them representing an issue the writers wanted to tackle. Still, none feel hollow, and the unanswered questions left this season promise rich areas to discover in the already under-production second season.
Perhaps the show’s greatest aspect is how genuine it feels. In a prison, nearly everything is ‘unfair’, but the only choice for the characters is to get on with things as best they can in their own way. It’s warm, sad and funny to watch; while Piper may be melodramatic at times, the show never is. There is no supreme cruel warden or head guard as in a prison drama like The Shawshank Redemption; no single villain ultimately responsible for how bad everyone has it, just simply a combination of poor luck, poor decisions and the poor management of the American justice system. For all the cynicism that might have sunk it before it even began, Orange’s sincerity wins you over, making it even easier to watch its full thirteen episode run on Netflix in a couple of go’s. Hopefully, the show does make people think, not with the hollow, head-nodding white guilt of admitting that ‘things are a lot worse on the other side of the tracks’ (a stance Piper might have been guilty of before she started her sentence). A more fitting achievement for the show would be if it gave faces and names to problems that are kept out of the spotlight as much as possible. Maybe that’s one of the best things ‘Issue Television’ can do.