With a lack of TV shows dominated by women, journalist Caroline Corcoran says Orange Is The New Black leads the way with its cast of Latinos, blacks, whites, gays, straights, transgendered, old and young.
I think that I’m one of only about seven people in the world who don’t like Breaking Bad. I should caveat that: I think I’m one of only about seven people in the world who think they don’t like Breaking Bad but don’t truly know because they stopped watching after two men dissolved a human body in a bathtub and they nearly threw up their takeaway pad thai. I’m told that I would love it if I could just keep my noodles down until season two, but I’m stubborn and lack patience, so that has never happened.
But there’s another thing. Just before I tried and failed to watch Breaking Bad, I tried and failed to watch The Wire, and when I looked for what the common issue was for me with two shows that everybody else loves, I reached a simple conclusion: in my TV shows, I need strong female characters. And they’re often a rarity. I hold out for Joan scenes in Mad Men. I think Robin Wright is the best thing about House Of Cards. Tami Taylor in Friday Night Lights is my TV goddess; Felicity Huffman’s Lynette Scavo in Desperate Housewives is a close second. But TV shows that are dominated by women are limited and when they do happen, the women generally exist in a huddle. Girls, Sex and the City… there are small differences (often based around their relationship choices and their dress sense) but the women are friends; part of the same crowd and coming at things from roughly the same place.
And then there is Orange Is The New Black, the Netflix series about a middle-class white woman sent to prison for a drug offence committed ten years earlier, which flips that rule entirely on its head.
Piper Chapman’s story is the perfect vehicle - take a woman who is generally fixated on artisan soap and whether her broccoli is organic and throw her into a hard, closed world full of disparate people - thin, fat, a rarely-seen-on-TV-size-in-the-middle, Latino, black, white, gay, straight, transgendered, old and young, but all - without exception - less privileged than Piper. It’s a juicily rich tapestry of womanhood and that is how Orange Is The New Black comes along and sucks you right into its heart.
When you go to name the standout female character from Orange Is The New Black, you pause. Because by nature of the show’s setting (barring a few staff, most notably the brilliantly named Pornstache, you don’t get many men in a women’s prison) the female cast is dense. More crucially than that though, it’s oozing with talent and character and it’s not an exaggeration or a gushing OITNB suck-up to say that you could list every one of them. They all stand out. They all shine.
My relationship with them bears more resemblance to the way I feel about characters in great novels than it does to TV characters; they stay with you, long after you’ve shut down your laptop and refocused binge-blurred eyes. They’re not simple, these women - the same one that scares you will deliver a one-liner about a chicken (long story, great episode) that will still make you laugh when you remember it six months later. A lot of it, too, is down to the flashbacks that are written into each episode. The series regularly checks back to give characters their pre-prison narrative and remind you that they didn’t always wear orange.Perhaps it’s helping to change a world view too; the women in Orange Is The New Black aren’t prisoners, they’re individual humans who made bad life choices for messy reasons. There’s Russian matriarch and resident chef, Red, who does many dishes including a tampon sandwich. Laverne Cox’s awesome transgender prison hairdresser Sophia. Lion-haired lesbian Nicky. Tarryn Manning’s meth-toothed religious extremist Pensatucky. Piper herself. The legendary Taystee. Daya. ‘Crazy Eyes’, who thinks Piper is her prison wife.
It’s a juicily rich tapestry of womanhood and that is how Orange Is The New Black comes along and sucks you right into its heart.
But my personal favourite is Alex Vause; queen of the death stare, leader of the Milkshake dance, and occasional frequenter of the tumble dryer. Alex is Piper’s ex girlfriend - the woman who the lead character believes is the reason she is in prison and the one who drew her into the world of drug-running in the first place. Their relationship is as complex as the one you would expect to have in the unlikely event that you had a treacherous ex that turned up in the same prison as you.
Sling a visiting fiancé into the picture for Piper and the dynamic between the three works as the main arc in the show; the relationships up and down as frequently as Red’s arm in the prison canteen ladelling out portions of rice.
One of the reasons that I am fixated on Alex is that she is real. Or real-ish. Orange Is The New Black is based on the book of the same name, which was written by Piper Kerman after she spent just over a year in a facility in Connecticut. Piper K provided the inspiration for Piper C and now works as an Executive Consultant on the show and though some creative licence has been taken a lot of what you see is accurate. Which means it’s grim. It’s bleak. It’s very, very darkly funny. At times it’s terrifying.
Piper’s situation may be an extreme, but the idea of your biggest ever early-20s mistake coming to knock on your nice suburban door ten years after it was long buried; of having goodbye meals with your friends as you headed off not to work abroad for a year, but to live in a cell with regular strip searches: you watch those opening scenes of passed salad and Piper’s dread with a sick ‘What would I do if that was me?’ feeling.
But for all of that, Orange Is The New Black isn’t miserable. In fact it’s oddly uplifting. In the midst of stabbings, dead rats and ‘You’re gonna die’ notes on the bedside tables, there is a squashy core of humanity and kindness. There are belly laughs, friendship, there is a prison van load full of spirit. And somehow, that makes me keep my takeaway down even at the sight of that bloody tampon sandwich.