It starts out predictably enough. You watched all the Youtube teasers for Orange is the New Black, and the premise seems intriguing: an upper-middle class white woman, Piper Chapman, gets sentenced to 18 months in prison for a twelve-year-old non-violent crime. The fact that it is written and directed by the creator of Weeds, is just icing on the cake. You decide to tune in to see how Piper deals with her new circumstances.
The first few episodes are predictable. Piper is friendless and at odds with everyone in the prison, who dislike her because she is white and relatively rich, yes, but also because she is naïve and maddeningly idealistic- she even willfully turned herself in, for crying out loud. Poor, poor, misplaced Piper.
As the series plays on, however, you realize that Piper is not only the most boring character in the series, she’s also the least likeable. She is not so much the main character as the one who holds it all together, our eyes behind the barbed wire, so to speak.
Season two continued in this vein. Each episode focuses on the backstory of a different character and what circumstances brought them to Litchfield. These stories cover bank robbery, drugs, and love affairs gone awry, reaching years, decades into the past.
Kohan’s work is especially commendable because it paints each character in the most human light possible. Unlike other serials, there are no clear-cut ‘bad guys’ and ‘good guys’- each character is both bad and good at different times. At one moment, our hearts break for Suzanne ‘Crazy Eyes’ Warren as we witness how she was ostracized from childhood. A few episodes later, we hate her for ruthlessly beating down another inmate.
Even Pennsatucky, arguably the ‘Big Bad’ of season one, is shows a softer side this season, as she befriends Mr. Healy, the lonely, lesbian-phobic counselor who can’t figure out how to romance his mail order Russian Wife.
Similar backstories are given to all the guards and inmates. Kohan’s message – on both a macro and micro level – is that, as much as we like to demonize people, no person is entirely good, and no person is entirely bad. Not even convicted felons, or the guards and wardens charged with their safety. Not even ourselves.
One sort-of-criticism of the series is that it’s almost trying to do too much. By giving a character a detailed back story, they set up the expectation that each story will be continued episode to episode. Instead, a different character is explored in each installment, and all loose ties from previous stories are left to hang. This mirrors real-life in that not all stories get closure, but it also makes it impossible to pin point ‘main characters.’ The answer to this is that there aren’t any, at least not in the classic sense.
Rather than being overtly character- or plot-driven, OITNB focuses on the chemistries and interactions between women who would have never associated with each other outside of prison. The microcosm created is fascinating, and completely makes up for the lack of outright action, though there is enough of that in the last episode, when all of the backstories that have been simmering throughout the season suddenly boil over. I won’t ruin the surprise, but I don’t think anyone will have any issues with making it through to the end.
There is one negative aspect of OITNB, and that is, Unlike most of Netflix’s offerings, we have to wait an entire year for the next season. One of the perks of online streaming is instant gratification, so this is rather ironic, and even a little cruel. That’s cold, Netflix. Stone cold.