Review: The Arresting Charm of Orange is the New Black

Having recently binge-watched all four seasons of OITNB, and with each plot-line still fresh in my mind, I am ready to celebrate this masterpiece in anticipation of the release of season 5 (coming soon this June).

For anyone late to the OITNB party, this Netflix series, set in a women’s prison, is based on the true story of Piper Kerman (Chapman in the show), who carried a suitcase full of drug money – once –  in her early twenties. Ten years later, engaged and about to launch her own business, Piper suddenly finds herself facing a 15-month sentence.

The first season follows Piper’s “orientation” at Litchfield prison: she’s appalled at the living conditions; she misses her fiancé; she makes some friends; she makes some enemies, etc.

In this show, each inmate becomes a person.

But even though the focus is on Piper, thanks to the extensive use of flashbacks, we get to dig deep into the psyche of many characters, even the ones that Piper perceives to be cruel and hard. We get their backstories, which explain why they think the way they do, why they act the way they do, and why they’re doing time. In this show, each inmate becomes a person. And humanizing inmates in a society that no longer sees prisons as rehabilitation centres and demonizes inmates is vital. What’s more, since this is a women’s prison, we are given narrative after narrative about women –  women of different races, classes and sexualities. It addresses LGBTQIA+ concerns, rape, child abuse, child neglect, domestic violence, prostitution, cancer, mental health, religion, drug abuse, menstruation – pretty much everything, and in multi-cultural settings, as the script contains dialogue in English, Spanish, and Russian, among other languages. I can’t think of another series that passes the Bechdel test with such flying colours as OITNB does, and deals with each of the issues it addresses so sensitively. But it’s never preachy. Never sanctimonious. Never smug.  

In the next three seasons, as we start to feel at home at Litchfield, the focus gradually moves away from Piper. From inmates to guards, to the administration itself, and as more characters and plotlines are introduced, there’s no one we don’t get to know inside out.

When OITNB first aired, I assumed it would be a clichéd, half-hearted attempt at making prison life and the quirky shenanigans of the inmates funny; maybe with a didactic message on the side. But OITNB’s defies genre. Its writers are fiercely intelligent and they’ve crafted the show in such a way that, one minute it’s laugh-out-loud hilarious (thanks to the physical humour and comic timing of talents such as Uzo Aduba), and the next, a heart-wrenching drama whose harrowing social commentary on how people are treated by the system and by others, both on the outside and behind bars, brings you to tears.

Everything is well thought through. The characters are given depth and complexity; no one is a clear-cut good guy or villain. The transitions between past and present, from one perspective to another, are always flawless, and thematically linked. Even the songs selected to play during the end credits of each episode have been carefully selected; in an episode with a badass ending we get Bo$$’s “I Don’t Give a Fuck”, while at the end of a sobering episode dealing with violence against a trans inmate, the bleak atmosphere is perfectly captured in Willis Earl Beale’s “Too Dry to Cry”.

It is this attention to detail and its constant subverting of expectations that makes OITNB a stand out series, sure to win its audience’s hearts.