A couple weeks ago I very nearly gave up on Orange is the New Black, Netflix's newest series, after only having watched the intro to the first episode. To me it felt like the entire series was to be a soft core lesbian prison drama aimed at straight men. I wasn't happy at all that the show's main hook seemed to be boobies. Not just any boobies, but perfectly shaped, Hollywood actress boobies. This upset me greatly, because so many friends and critics had praised the show on it's realism and commitment to accuracy. It took me a few days to come back to OITNB after my first initial viewing of the intro, and the only reason I did was because of a bet I made with my boyfriend. I bet that by episode three, we wouldn't see anyone naked who didn't already fit the conventionally attractive mould. The bet ended on episode 3 when Sofia, the prison's transsexual hairdresser, is shown topless in the shower room. While she may be trans, she still beared the hallmarks for conventional beauty: tall, light-skinned, european hair, and physically toned. We called it a draw.
I'm glad I took the bet and committed to at least 3 episodes, because now I'm obsessed. What started off as a quirky comedy about an upper-middle class, white girl going to prison, soon swings into drama about the prison as a whole. While Piper is the main character, the story arc becomes less and less about her, and includes far more of the supporting cast by exploring the back-story of various inmates in each episode. This works so well with Piper's own character arc as she becomes less and less self centered throughout the series. At the beginning, Piper is likeable and witty, but also self conscious; someone I could really project myself onto. She has a wonderful boyfriend who she watches Mad Men with and has just started up a small business with her best friend. She's the "sane" one in a camp full of "crazies." However along the way, Piper starts to become aware of her own privilege and social prejudices. Thus, making the viewer aware of their own, because lets face it, the main viewer demographic for this show is going to be middle-class white people aged 25-40.
The other thing I love about the show is that it subtly holds a mirror up to one of society's biggest issues world-wide: People, consciously or unconsciously thinking they know what is best for women. From the very start, you see every single character on the outside (friends, family, and Corrections Officers) telling Piper how to deal with her 15 month sentence and Piper deferring to those people for comfort and assurance. The prisoners on the other hand embrace diversity in an unusual way. Yes the prison is divided up into tribes based on race. However interactions are not based on prisoners telling other prisoners how to go about their lives, but by what skills you can bring to the table and offer the other prisoners. There is a very palpable sense of an "us versus them" mentality between those on the outside and the female inmates. Even in cases where there is a loving relationship (boyfriend/girlfriend, mother/daughter, best friends), there is still stigma attached to the incarcerated. This dynamic is most visible in the relationship between the corrections officers and the prisoners. Piper is often told "you're not like them," as if the women around her are subhuman. In fairness, they're treated as much by prison staff. However one C.O. stands apart from the rest, a young female rookie who, I believe, has one of the most important pieces of dialogue that sets the tone for the 2nd half of the series. I won't give too much away, but it was one of those "eureka!" moments for our protagonist, and I relished in her revelation. Netflix may have an somewhat poor choice of films in their collection, but they are two for two with their TV series that I've seen. First with the impeccable political drama House of Cards and now Orange is the New Black. If they continue down this path of using revenue to produce outstanding programs like these, I'm willing to forgive their shitty selection elsewhere.