Netflix recently started trying their hand at some original programming. Television isn't exactly the right word for it anymore, since the delivery system can be seen anywhere from your average TV to a phone to my Nintendo 3DSXL, but their episodes are structured about the same as your average TV show. So far my reactions have varied. I don't have the same unwavering devotion to Arrested Development as many do, so the few episodes I saw of that left me cold. The American adaptation of House of Cards boasts a bevy of excellent performances and a cool atmosphere, but falters a lot on the development of its characters and overarching plot. Finally there's Hemlock Grove, which unless I suddenly find myself getting paid to do program reviews I will not go anywhere close to.
Finally there is Orange is the New Black, the latest creation from Jenji Kohan, whose last series Weeds started off excellently before withering off to taking wishy-washy ethical stances on its subject. Part of the problem came from the fact that Weeds wanted to be a dark satire of the suburbs just as badly as it wanted to be hilarious, so you'd end up with these hilarious moments from Kevin Nealon interspersed with increasingly dire emotional straits embodied through Mary-Louise Parker. They both kept pushing farther away from one another until you end up with episodes that try to balance auto-erotic asphyxiation with the murderous dealings of a multinational drug cartel. I'm impressed that the creative team was able to keep the balance for as long as they did, but it became too much to handle after a few seasons, and eventually my interest wandered away.Orange is the New Black (OitNB from this point on) seems to have its own set of issues up front. It's about Piper (Taylor Schilling), who has to spend a year in prison because of some money running that she did ten years earlier. She found herself in the same prison as her former partner, both romantically and criminally, Ales (Laura Prepon), while trying to reassure her fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs) that she's in control of herself in the prison and that she's going right back with him when she gets out.
First, it's approaching the prison system with the same kind of mix of humor and drama as Weeds did. That's not a bad thing on its own and considering how well the balance worked in the first couple of episodes I feel hope that the series would stay grounded with the drama so the levity is more of a "We laugh so we might not cry" scenario instead of becoming willfully absurd. That problem satiated, the other issue comes from the basis of the show. The promos and trailer for the shows looked like it would be another pretty white people with problems scenario. The kind of show where you tune in every week, sigh or chuckle at the problems Piper (Taylor Schilling) has to go through, and then tune out secure in the knowledge that what's happening to her is not happening to you and now you can lecture other people on how our prison system is working just fine and only punishes the "real" criminals.The reason that this is the best program on the air now is that it does not take the safe way out at all. It preempts any attempt at softballing the subject by running the main plot of each episode through the prison and then using the side-plots to explore the past of each inmate while checking in on Larry's life outside the prison walls. This expands the scope of the show immensely and Kohan and crew have taken advantage of the expansion. By showing the lives of the inmates before the prison we get to see the dehumanizing effect that life in the prison has on the women. It also allows Kohan to examine more than just the prison system, as we get to see how the unique combination of social, economic, racial, and sexual politics devalues those aspects of people both inside and outside the prison walls.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the third episode, "Lesbian Request Denied". Instead of keeping the focus on the main characters so far, the scope drifts to the life of Sophia, the self-appointed hairdresser for the prison. Her story didn't start at all like I was expecting, because the scenes shifted to the vantage point of a male firefighter. Then, in a very nice visual transition, we watch the man undress to show he has women's underwear on underneath his uniform, and then back to Sophia as she admires her naked body. With one image, OitNB shows that it is not concerned with just prison as a building, but more conceptual ones like the body and workplace as a prison. Even though she's trapped in concrete Sophia has made a life for herself far freer that when she was a man, and in the process OitNB shows that it is far more ambitious than its first two episodes have shown.As the first season progressed inmates that previously had only a handful of lines get fleshed out and evolve the tapestry of characters from the core pretty characters to a rainbow of history and motivation. One of the best evolutions comes from the character everyone calls "Crazy Eyes". In the first couple of episodes she just seems to be an insane comic foil for Piper inside the prison. But Kohan shows "Crazy Eyes" in little lights that change our entire perception of her, from the warm and loving relationship she has with her adopted parents, to her moments of lucidity when she realizes how she looks and sounds to people when she gets lost. The greatest moment is when she tries to intimated some kids visiting the school from the Scared Straight program and just recites Shakespeare. Instead of being an insane rival, she's someone that could have stood toe-to-toe with Nicolas Cage in skill and intensity and been successful on the stage. Instead, her talents are going to waste because of the way we dehumanize her mental state, her gender, and her skin color.
Which is why I grew to love Piper not for her actions, but for her limp Democratic delusions. She entered the prison with the idea that all she needs to do is work hard, be polite, and educate some of her fellow inmates, and she'll coast through the year with no problem. Kohan deserves a ton of praise for willing to take the piss out of Piper so readily. The reason that she's able to have these ideas is that the outside world was already catered to most of her attributes as a white, upper-middle class, well-educated woman. She's at least better than people who aren't even to acknowledge that much, but still engages with the rest of the world as though they are poor unfortunate souls that just need some guidance. Piper may not be as bad as the system that put her where she is, but it's clear from the series that it is providing a harsh education for her.The men of the series aren't demonized, they're just as human as the rest, but each one of them shows how this world is catered for them and not for the women in their charge. The monstrous "Pornstache" (Pablo Schreiber) gets a moment to realize how the nature of his position in the prison makes it so that everyone will see him just in those terms and nothing else. But he still has power, paid leave, the ability to molest the women as he sees fit. The system is for him, to treat women as objects just as much inside the prison as outside in a bar. Even the "nice guy" of the series, John (Matt McGorry), doesn't seem to realize the balance of power that lets him carry out his flirtations and skirt his responsibilities - a lesson that he gets justifiably lectured on inside and outside the prison.
What impresses me the most about OitNB is the wealth of things it has to say about every aspect of the prison system and the lives that got corralled into it. Most series hit their high mark toward the end of their second season or start of the OitNB has already hit a watershed moment for genuinely progressive television. It does more than give a voice to the disenfranchised, it's willing to tell their story and not insult their lives by turning them into a collection of their low-points. This is an ambitious as hell series, frequently hilarious, and rich with human drama. Even if they stay the course it's set to become one of the all-time greats, and what a wonder it will be if it even improves by the tiniest step.