If someone were to ask me to think about shows that have an all – or almost all – female cast, I would probably first think of some horrible reality TV show like Dance Moms, followed by some lame series like Desperate Housewives, Cougartown, or The Mistresses. Either way, a vag-tastic cast seems to be a recipe for disaster, not only for our IQ’s but for the image of women in general. It’s a shame that American TV viewing audiences still turn away when there are too many breasts on a screen, but, really, they haven’t been given much to work with. Until now. I try really hard not to gush about things because inevitably that thing will let me down, but I Love Love Love Orange is the New Black, which does, indeed, have an almost-all-female cast. I don’t even know where to begin with reviewing this show because there’s just so much I enjoy about it. Quick summary: based on a true story, a white, yuppie girl goes to federal prison in upstate NY for a drug trafficking crime that she committed years ago with her former lesbian lover. Hijinks ensue. It’s not Oz, but it ain’t Wisteria Lane either. The cast is a Technicolor rainbow of diversity, not just in skin color, but in age, class, education, sexual preference, and, surprisingly, gender (there is a transgender character on this show who is absolutely amazing!).
I shied away from this show at first because I thought that it was going to be another “let’s put a white girl in a situation with the brown folks and watch how she saves them,” like the prison version of Dangerous Minds. But, it’s not that. It’s not that at all. While Piper, the white girl, is a fish out of water, she cannot use her whiteness – and all that typically comes with it (i.e. education, privilege, knowledge of Mad Men) to save herself nor to save others. In the first episode, one of the inmates asks Piper why she’s in jail. Piper says that she read in a book that they aren’t supposed to ask each other that question. The inmate laughs and says, “You studied for prison?” Piper is often made the fool because her assumptions about people, developed through her myopic lens of cushy, hipster urban life (if prison is a fishbowl, so too is Brooklyn), are so totally and completely wrong. Not only does her doe-eyed innocence not win her any favors in prison (After Piper tries to apologize for an earlier incident, Red, a central figure in the prison, says, “You seem like a nice girl. You really do. But, I can’t do shit with ‘I’m Sorry’ in here.”), but it’s actually a danger to her because, as Red tells her, “Once you are perceived as weak, you already are.”
Overall, this is Piper’s story, but the creator, Jenji Kohan, makes it everyone’s show through the use of flashbacks. Each episode contains flashbacks that illuminate our main characters’ pre-prison lives. The flashbacks work on a number of levels: first, to get us out of the fishbowl that is prison; second, to give some humanity to those who have been stripped of all their humanity; third, as the great equalizer. Through the flashbacks we see that the inmates have all been both victims and perpetrators. They have all made choices – in most cases, bad choices (though sometimes a bad choice is just being in the wrong place at the wrong time) – that have landed them in jail. They were all something before they were nothing. Regardless of the extent of the crime, no one there is more or less innocent or guilty than anyone else. They are all equal in their criminality but in their humanity as well.
The show tackles some heavy topics – the penal system, sexuality (of all kinds), power abuse, poverty, race, class, and violence – without beating the viewer over the head with any particular political agenda or point of view. There are no long soliloquies, no voiceovers, no extended periods of exposition – nothing that assaults the viewers’ sensibilities, or abilities in general, to understand the complexities of the issues at play (except for maybe the use of sad piano music during some of the more dramatic moments). Instead, the viewers are left with Piper to act as their surrogate, sharing in the devastation of having all of our creature comforts and our established belief systems upended and destroyed. Through Piper, we get to see how surreal that would be, how scary, and how easy it would be to spiral into madness. I give this show 5 out 5 shivs.