“OITNB”: A Worthy Prison Series

“All I wanted was to eat the chicken that is smarter than other chickens and to absorb its power. And make a nice Kiev…” – Galina “Red” Reznikov

Welcome to Orange is the New Black, the second major television comedy/drama series from Jenji Kohan (following Weeds). Based on the memoir by Piper Kerman and set in a women’s prison, Orange is the New Black (or OITNB for short) does not orientate itself to the stereotypes of prison dramas. Compared to Oz (an excellent series focusing on male prisoners produced over a decade earlier), OITNB vastly differentiates itself by primarily concentrating on the inmates’ lives before, and their relationships both inside and out of, prison. This approach allows the viewer to empathize with the characters more than a typical prison drama series would permit, thus making OITNB stand out from the crowd.

The protagonist is a typical WASP-y American woman Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) in her early 30’s, but it becomes clear from the outset that the series does not only focus on her. What’s refreshing about OITNB is the multiplicity of racial and cultural backgrounds it highlights—Russian, Chinese, Puerto Rican, and African-American to name a few. The tribal nature of prison is an omnipresent theme in prison dramas; in Oz, the interaction between the tribes is almost always violent and usually centred on drug deals. In OITNB, these interactions are acerbic, dynamic, and ultimately comedic—they rarely fall flat and keep the viewer’s eyes glued to the screen.

Piper Chapman and Alex Vause

Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) and Alex Vause (Laura Prepon)

The femininity and sexuality of the inmates as the show unfolds throughout the seasons is engrossing and ranges from Sophia Burset’s (Laverne Cox) struggles of being a transgender woman, Russian Red’s (Kate Mulgrew) life before prison, and Piper’s relationships with her fiancée, Larry (Jason Biggs) and ex-girlfriend Alex (Laura Prepon). The prison institution, as we know it, demands a uniformity amongst its inmates, but the inmates in OITNB fight back to claim whatever femininity they can in their sterile environment, proudly displaying their spoils in a show of mild defiance.

Whilst OITNB is clearly focused on the central themes of relationships, past lives, and sexuality, it doesn’t confront the viewer or feel as gritty as Oz does. Although placid in comparison, OITNB has benefited greatly from this approach, resulting in a humorous celebration of personality, femininity, and diversity. This makes OITNB easily one of the best female prison series and the Emmy nominations that it has accrued have been rightfully earned with outstanding performances amongst the ensemble. When the third season hits our screens, we will be confronted with a difficult choice: to binge watch or consume slowly. Multiple debates are raging on the internet for an answer.

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