A series of film reviews and opinion pieces from a film student and all round movie lover! Happy reading!
Release: 2013 –
Created By: Jenji Kohan
Produced By: Neri Kyle Tannenbaum
Starring: Taylor Schilling, Laura Prepon, Michael J. Harney, Taryn Manning
Running Time: 51 – 92 Minutes
The environment of prison lends itself very well to the mediums of film and television. Something about the unfamiliarity, the curiosity of the audience and the incredibly diverse and complicated characters that lurk behind the bars form a recipe for both cinematic and small screen gold.
Orange Is The New Black, the incredibly popular Netflix original series is a prime example of how imperative the elements of balance, diversity and control are when creating a series set within the barricades of a correctional facility. Juggling countless characters, each as complex as the next, Orange Is The New Black (abbreviated to OITNB) finds a way to round almost every one of its key contributors, as well as flesh out equally engaging supports to create a family-like environment we love returning to as each episode and season passes by.
Based off the 2010 memoirs entitled Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Woman’s Prison by Piper Kerman, OITNB tells the story of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a confused and vulnerable woman who finds herself behind bars at Litchfield Penitentiary after a decade-old crime resurfaces and results in a sentence of fifteen months.
Nervous and under immense pressure by her new surroundings, Piper adapts to the harsh and unforgiving prison environment as best she can, however she also manages to make her fair share of enemies along the way. She must learn to acclimatise and coexist with her fellow volatile inmates before she becomes an even larger outcast with a bigger target on her head, which is a process that proves rather difficult.
OITNB has a lot to say about love, gender, race, orientation, mental illness, authority, hierarchy, prejudice and sex, and the way it approaches particular issues is both intelligently subtle and unabashedly on the nose.
Addressing contemporary real world issues from across the table in a prison dining room is a difficult agenda to fulfil cleverly, however the writers of the series manage to find a way, particularly within scenes that would otherwise be seen as disposable.
Discourse in the garden, the bathroom, the bunks or simply within a cell are all important to the development of the narrative and characters, but at the moment it’s taking place, it mostly seems superfluous and unimportant. Often bookending a season, subtle hints and foreshadowing remind the audience that this is a cleverly structured and paced series that doesn’t let its guard down (unlike some of the guards themselves).
Finding the balance is difficult with a show such as this, especially when considering tone. Too often will shows put all their eggs in one basket and commit rigidly and unwaveringly on a singular tone with no room for change. OITNB can make you laugh hysterically, sigh in adoration, clench your fists in anger and even reduce you to tears, sometimes within a single episode.
With countless stories all taking place simultaneously, the focus jumps back and forth between alternating arks and narrative beats, therefore resulting in a fluctuating tone. Where one would expect this to be a flaw in the series, it in fact heightens the overall mood of the show with diversity and variety being king; an element most series aim to avoid wherever possible.
As Piper gradually settles in to prison, her significance and focus incrementally reduces to the point where she becomes a supporting character like the rest of the cast. The typical central protagonist doesn’t exist within OITNB post-season 2, which allows an even spread of characters that are explored on similar levels, therefore allowing a deeper connection to the inmates as a collective.
This both taps into the stripping away if individuality and identity that comes with the prison environment, but also the coexistence of inmates on a level playing field. Piper simply becomes one of the rest.
Characters come and go with every new season, and while it’s difficult to say goodbye to certain people, particular departures (and arrival fresh faces) are more than satisfying. There’s an argument to be made that characters introduced in later seasons are less charismatic than earlier members, particularly certain guards, however the spread and rotation of interesting, diverse characters remains one of the show’s strongest qualities across the board.
As we learn about these different people, flashbacks to their past are interwoven through the episode, often giving the audience an insight into what lead them to end up at Litchfield. Particular stories are fascinating and unexpected, shining a whole new light on someone you looked at completely differently before you learned their backstory. This is an important element when observing the series overall as prejudice and dismissiveness can be found within the audience and not just the inmates themselves.
For fans of easily watchable, binge-worthy black comedy with additional flair and emotion, there’s no looking past Orange Is The New Black. A series with a plethora of unique, contrasting characters that are as interesting and investible as the next, the series crams a smothering of themes and story elements in to four seasons of confined escapades that highlight both the brutality and pleasant communion of the low-security prison environment.
Funny, gripping, poignant, frustrating and emotional, OITNB offers an array of the essential qualities a successful television series requires, managing to outdo itself with each new season. It’s a reminder that even contemporary prison dramas can be original and multifaceted and is highly encouraged that you do some time of your own!