The way in which we watch television is changing. There is no denying that more and more people are watching programmes online, and a growing number don’t even own a TV, but exclusively stream programmes straight to their laptops. This method of accessing television programmes means you can watch whatever you want, whenever you want, and that is one of the reasons why websites like Netflix are the future.
Orange Is The New Black (OITNB) is the latest original series for the on-demand streaming website, with all 13 episodes being made available online in July. With 15 second intervals between the end of an episode and the beginning of the next, and the fact that the show is incredibly well-written, emotional, gritty and stirring, it lends itself perfectly to hours and hours of binge-viewing.
The show revolves around Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling); the middle class, engaged white woman, whose past as the girlfriend of an international drug cartel leader catches up with her ten years later, sending her to Litchfield, a women’s federal prison in upstate New York. Despite Chapman being the focus of the series, each episode also describes the back stories of the other recurring characters, which includes both the prisoners and the prison officers, exhibiting a range of every possible human emotion.
It would have been easy for Chapman to be portrayed as a sheltered and naive woman who learns life lessons from the other lower-class prisoners, and although this is what happens to a point, she herself admits that she is no better than the others. This is made poignantly clear in episode six during a visit from her mother, where Chapman calmly admits: “I am in here because I am no different from anybody else in here. I made bad choices, I committed a crime and being in here is no one’s fault but my own.” However, Chapman isn’t a character made to be particularly likeable, despite her butter-wouldn’t-melt façade. Instead, the audience is shown all of her bad habits and insecurities, and drawn into the compelling stories of the other characters. One character who it is easier to sympathise for is fellow inmate Taystee (Danielle Brooks), not because of her hilarious anecdote relating to barbecue sauce and how she ended up in prison, but her heartbreaking and realistic return to prison a month after she leaves because she couldn’t survive outside: “everyone I know is poor, in jail, or gone.”
Such injustice and disparity is amplified in the prison context by the importance of power. While there is a struggle among the inmates to climb the power hierarchy from the jealousy of ‘Red’ (Kate Mulgrew) to the elections for the Women’s Advisory Council, there is the abuse of power by the almost all-male prison officers. From the predatory and evil George Mendez (Pablo Schreiber) to the twisted Sam Healy (Michael J Harney) whose personal vendetta against Chapman grows throughout the series due to his hatred of lesbians, culminating in the final episode, a stark gender divide is represented in every episode. The struggle of the characters trying to assert themselves is portrayed so effectively that it seems believable, despite the unthinkable lengths which they go to, to do so.
One issue which is repeatedly touched on throughout the thirteen episodes is that of gender and sexuality. Moving away from the polished lesbians from series’ like The L Word, OITNB features an array of women with different sexual orientations. Chapman refuses to be categorised, and tries to explain the Kinsey scale to her current fiancé (Jason Biggs) but also returns to her previous girlfriend an drug mule Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) while in prison. This is mirrored by Lorna Morello (Yael Stone) who too has a fiancé outside prison, but has a short-lived relationship with Nicky Nicholls (Natasha Lyonne) when in prison. Elsewhere there is the butch lesbian ‘Big Boo’ (Lea DeLaria) and Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox) who plays a trans woman who is in charge of the prison salon. It does well to represent a range of women, but undoubtedly there is more sex in OITNB than there is in any real prison.
OITNB doesn’t present the most original of settings or ideas, but is executed perfectly with sensitivity and excellent attention to detail. Series creator Jenji Kohan creates horrifyingly unsettling moments, from a used tampon sandwich, to very serious threats of death. In the last few episodes, the content does seem to spin out of control a little, but the final episode cliffhanger is one of the best of all time. The series is engrossing and provocative, while bringing elements of humour to the lives of these women. Filming of the second series is already underway in New York, with an expected release of early 2014, so expect more magnificently stirring episodes to be streamed straight to your computer soon.