Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Orange is the New Black is worth your time (I promise)

And I am going to give you some reasons why.
But first...

A quick note of self-promotion. I have updated and added a few new pages to this blog! Did you notice the links above? That's right, if you're curious to learn a bit more about me you can read About Me. Or (and I must admit I took this idea from another blog I saw because I loved it so much) you can see my current Booklist. You can follow what I'm currently reading and what I've read, if you're so inclined.

So a female prison?

Yep, that's where Orange is the New Black takes us. And it's brilliant. Who would have guessed? Not me, that's for one. I will be the first to admit I was a bit wary about what to expect. And the second to admit I was happily surprised. It's a show that quietly draws you in.

In case you weren't aware Orange is the New Black is one of Netflix's new shows and solely available from Netflix, at least in the US. It's brought to us from Jenji Kohan (who is known for her previous work on Weeds). The first season came out in July with all 13 episodes released at once. A second season is in production and scheduled to come out sometime next year.

Piper is our main character who we follow into prison. She's an affluent, white, engaged woman who has no reason going to prison. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say, she's not the kind of person you would expect to see behind bars. And yet, she got caught doing something wrong and must face the punishment. That's one of the things Orange does right. It asks the tough questions and goes there. It doesn't shy away from race, sex, drugs, stereotypes or female relationships. Which is refreshing.

A quick disclaimer though to those who are looking for a feel-good, "clean" show. This isn't it. There's cursing, nudity, violence and sex. If that's not your thing, don't worry about it. But know you are missing a good show with some stellar insight into our societal stereotypes and expectations.

Our introduction to this prison environment is through Piper, and I for one was as uncomfortable as she was. I had no idea what to expect and have little (read: zero) experience with our penitentiary system. Besides knowing that bad guys and girls go there. But, Orange is the New Black questions that ideal and breaks down what actually brings each inmate to this place. It's easy to lump these ladies together and assume they're all convicts. They're not deserving of our concern. They're serving their time. They did something wrong and should be punished.

And yet, it's not that simple. Our justice system is complicated. You can't lump people into groups because each person has their own story to tell. Which is exactly what Orange is the New Black does. It makes you care about these women and men.

As each episode passes you get a little more insight into each character and how they came to be here. It's a large cast and a bit overwhelming the first few episodes as you slowly start to hear their stories and get to know who they are. Which, in turn, further influences their interactions with each other as the show progresses. Furthermore, these stories don't just come from the inmates, but from the prison guards and staff as well. By the end of the season, you get at least a glimpse of insight into every single character. We, as viewers, get to witness social and racial stereotypes at play and are forced to recognize the level of their presence. When things are tough, who can you trust? The safe bet, people of your own color.

Again, it's not that simple. Everyone has their story to tell. But Orange makes a strong point that race relations continue to play a significant role in our society. It's impossible to deny, and yet an ideal is that we would be able to transcend where we come from and celebrated as the individual. Which Orange also acknowledges. Every character is both chained to their stereotype and yet distinctly unique.

Of course the show is not merely a social commentary, there's drama and intrigue, romance and heartbreak, successes and failures. But at it's core, Orange is the New Black asks us to determine our humanity and recognize who we are. There aren't any villains. There aren't any heroes in this show. Every single character has done something right and something wrong and has been left to deal with the consequences. What we constitute as wrong is subjective, as the show points out. It's not as black and white as we'd like to think. Being wrong doesn't make them a convict. It simply makes us human.

Taking Steps is Easy

Because if we're honest with ourselves, we've all broken the law once (speeding anyone?). It may have seemed innocent enough, but if we had been in the wrong place at the wrong time it could have led to a correctional facility, or court case. We just weren't the ones who were caught. What a sobering thought.

That is what I think makes this show so powerful. I found myself thinking about circumstance and how I would handle situations. Would I be like Piper? I'd hope not. But if not like her, who would I be?

The intro to the show is a bit disconcerting (at least it was to me when I first saw it), but as I watched more episodes I found myself really watching and listening to the lyrics.

One line in particular stood out to me, "Taking steps is easy. Standing still is hard."

I couldn't stop thinking how true those words are. When things get crazy and tough, we have the freedom to do something about it. Which I for one definitely take for granted. How I operate is by taking steps forward and doing something. That's what we as humans do. We change, take action, and move forward.

Imagining having to put my life on hold, while the rest of the world moved forward was devastating to accept and one of the things that is not thought about when people go to prison. Standing still is hard indeed. It's hard to accept things moving on around you, while you must simply wait and see. Things will never be the same and that becomes even harder to accept when you're literally barred from any action. That, more than anything, affected me as I watched the show. I would have a devastatingly, hard time standing still.

Drug Life

So you might be wondering by now how Piper got arrested and sentenced in the first place. Am I right? As I said, she's not a bad person, is engaged to Larry, and lives a successful New York life.

But, in her post college days, she got involved in a lesbian relationship, with her significant other happening to be part of an international drug ring. Piper helped smuggle drugs once. Ten years later she finally has to pay her time.

Sounds intriguing, right?

Have any of you seen Orange is the New Black? What did you think? Sound like something you might watch?

I didn't initially believe this would be a show for me. However, here I am letting you all know about it and still contemplating the twisted story and reveals.

One Final (Random) Note...

I watched Mud this past weekend with Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon and two amazing child actors set in deep south Mississippi on the Mississippi. It was a great movie about love and friendship. However sentimental that may sound, check it out. It's worth watching.

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