Netflix: “Orange is the New Black” Review

Orange is the New Black is the newest series released exclusively by Netflix. All 13 episodes were released on July 11. With previous successful releases such as Arrested Development and House of Cards, Orange is the New Black was highly anticipated before its release.

Let’s start with the highly billed cast members of, well, mostly nobody. There are a lot of nascent screen actors here including Taylor Schilling who plays the main character of Piper. For old times’ sake a few fan favorites are included: Jason Biggs of American Pie fame and Donna (Laura Prepon) from That 70’s Show make modest appearances. Kate Mulgrow who portrayed Captain Kathryn Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager is by far the most successful actor and perhaps is the reason why she is the most prominently featured in the series. Having novice actors is not necessarily a detriment to the series, but with top billed casts (such as Kevin Spacey and the whole Arrested Development cast) in previous series released by Netflix, Orange is the New Black reveals itself as rather lackluster.

Piper is a white, middle class suburbanite entering the “settling down segment” of adult life when her past decides to rear its ugly head. It turns out that after college Piper had a bit of a rebellious stage where she decided that she was a lesbian. Alex (Laura Prepon) was a strong, rebellious woman who also happened to be a drug smuggler for a multi-national drug cartel. Piper decided to date her anyway without getting involved in the cartel. However, in a time of dire need Piper agrees to become a mule and deliver drug money across international borders.

This is where the series begins. Piper is explaining to her fiancée, his family, and her family that this is the situation and she is surrendering herself the next day. They all come to the conclusion that a fifteen month jail sentence isn’t that bad and everything will be fine when she returns. Because of her upper middle class sensibilities Piper is forced to tell everyone but her immediate family that she is going on a mission to save starving children. Obviously, prison life is not easy and a multitude of things go wrong in the first few weeks that Piper is incarcerated.

My gripe with this series is not that it isn’t entertaining but that it bills itself as a totally different entity. The trailer projects Orange is the New Black as a funny, witty series with an uplifting message. This is not the case. Orange is the New Black is comical at first, however, as the series progresses it becomes progressively darker. I suppose that this is to be expected in a series about incarceration. There are comical bits interspersed within the main story. For instance, when two of the minority prisoners imitate white people listening to NPR. These interjections do not change the overall feeling of the series. The series’ reality is rather dark and deals with the ways in which people end up in prison and the life that they lead while there and sometimes even after they have served their terms.

In looking up some items for this review, I found that this series was based on a book written by a woman who is supposed to be Piper. This was a little disappointing since it revealed that this was another “original” series by Netflix that wasn’t truly original. Arrested Development was obviously a continuation and House of Cards was based on a British series of the same name. Regardless, I feel that some of the details have to be more than a little exaggerated. There seems to be a character for every prison stereotype ever. Meth head, perverted corrections officer, uncaring warden, romantically involved corrections officer, calm person who made one bad mistake, etc. etc. etc. The stereotypes seem to be perpetuated into eternity.

Even the main character is somewhat of a stereotype. Piper’s good upbringing and college education make her uniquely situated in this environment. She is really the only educated person there and uses this knowledge to her advantage. Manipulating prisoners, guards, and pretty much everyone to get whatever she wants. So in a sense this is a story about how white people are still manipulating minority cultures. Even when the well-off white girl is at her lowest, she still finds a way to push the people less deserving than her even lower.

Ultimately, you should still take the time to watch Orange is the New Black. It has above average acting for a series with no outstanding names. The story is compelling enough for one to want to find out what will happen in the next episode. My own problems with the series are just that I believe it could have done so much more. Instead of highlighting the battles between inmates, Orange is the New Black could have made the story into a compelling view of the United States prison system from the inside. Showing that ineffective laws like the three strikes rule put hundreds of undeserving – and mostly minority – individuals into jail for petty crimes. Orange is the New Black makes it seem like every criminal has committed a serious crime deserving of their sentence and downplays prison life into a series of relationships that seem more like suburban middle school arguments than a daily fight for one’s life. While the sheer entertainment value is there, Orange is the New Black misses the greater point and demeans a story that had a lot of potential to be a meaningful social commentary.