There’s something about ‘Orange is the New Black’

Opinion

Actress Danielle Brooks

Actress Danielle Brooks attends the Netflix Presents 'Orange Is The New Black' Special Screening at AMC Loews Broadway 4 on June 17, 2013 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Netflix)

In the opening sequence of the new, original Netflix series, Orange is the New Black, an attractive, young, blonde woman is rushed out of a prison shower stall by an impatient, hostile black inmate who remarks, “there best be some hot water left.”

Startled and dismayed, the doe-eyed white woman surrenders the shower to her imposing aggressor, who peers in at her through the curtain, rudely tugging down her towel as she exits the stall to admire her perky, lily-white breasts.

You can imagine my eye-roll and exhausted sigh as I watched, vexed by the prospect of yet another show featuring offensive representations of black and brown characters used to furnish a white protagonist’s storyline and cast their very whiteness into higher relief. As if anyone needed a reminder that in American film and television depictions, white folks usually play the lead and the rest of us are relegated to supporting roles, or worse, are used as props (with a few rare exceptions, of course).

RELATED: ‘Mad Men’ and black characters: Negative depictions in the name of diversity?

That said, you might also be aware that one of the chief pleasures of watching any Netflix original series (and I’ve watched them all, ranging from the admirable House of Cards, to the insufferable, Hemlock Grove) is you can stream the whole season in one sitting as you order take out on a Sunday, and eat Ben and Jerrys from the carton. Essentially, you can take a risk on a new show without much risk, thus without having to sacrifice weeks of your life only to realize that, no, Deception is never getting any better.

So, despite my misgivings, I kept watching Orange is the New Black. And, as I watched, something strange happened – things got interesting.

What makes ‘Orange’ Unique

In the Netflix dramedy – based on the memoir, Orange is the New Black: My Year In a Women’s Prison, penned by Piper Kerman – a recently-engaged, upper-middle-class Brooklynite, Piper Chapman (played by Taylor Schilling) is forced to reckon with her reckless past when she’s indicted then imprisoned for her (very) small role in an international drug trafficking ring she was involved in ten years back.

Now in her early thirties, Chapman’s former life running drug money for her then-girlfriend (the Betty Page-esque bad girl Alex played with dead-pan charm by Laura Prepon), no longer comports with her privileged, abrasively sweet, and utterly conventional social identity — if it ever did. That criminal moment in her life is at first characterized as some dark, lurid phase that she thought she left behind. This is distressing inasmuch as there is a correlation drawn between her bad behavior and her same-sex relationship (as if her homosexual experience led to drug trafficking). Nonetheless, it is this state of existential crisis that makes it interesting to watch Chapman navigate the rugged terrain of the women’s prison, interacting with a wide range of characters on her journey.

These characters sustain the show as the “white-girl-out-of-her-element-in-prison” theme plays itself out – as it does rather quickly. With each episode, in addition to following Piper’s stupidly earnest missteps as she grapples with prison politics — i.e., white people sit here, Asian people sit here, etc. — we learn more about the other women in the prison and what landed them there. Their stories range from that of a young woman who was on her way to track stardom, but fell in with the wrong crowd, to the tale of an evangelical meth addict who committed murder.

LGBTQ characters get good treatment

One of the most compelling characters is Laverne Cox’s Sophia Burset, a black, transgender, ex-firefighter who turns to identity theft to help support her son and finance her full transition.

Aside from the fact that it’s rare to see any juicy transgender characters on television, the fact that Sophia isn’t forlorn and suicidal like so many representations of LGBTQ characters in film and literature, but comes across as funny and empowered, makes the role feel even more triumphant artistically. This is due in no small part to Cox’s charismatic performance.

These rich backstories, combined with the flexibility built into the dramatic comedy genre, give Orange is the New Black its nuance, offering dimension to a diverse cast of characters that might otherwise remain flat stereotypes. This show can take you from tears, to laughs, to social commentary, and does so with panache.

Skillfully deployed irony creates disarming scenes filled with important dialogues on race, class, and gender. Part of what is so engaging about the show is its ability to straddle the tension between what is offensive, what is honest, and what is funny. You almost experience this high-wire balancing act viscerally as you’re watching.

One brilliant sardonic sampling 

A scene that illustrates this balance beautifully is one in which, in a very meta moment, a group of black inmates are hanging out in Sophia’s “salon.”

Tastyee, the character from the opening shower scene, played with gusto and expert comic timing by Danielle Brooks, is headed to the parole board to plead her case. The women discuss how she should do her hair and how her chances at freedom could be impacted by the race of the people on the parole board (suggesting at one point that, if the board is black, they’ll be harder on her).

The women conclude that in order to enhance her chances of appealing to the broadest base of people, she should style herself like “the black best friend in the white girl movie.”

They then list examples of actresses that fit the bill, and can ultimately only come up with three names – Regina King, Alicia Keys, and Viola Davis.