I just finished watching the first season of Orange Is the New Black, and man oh man, how I wish I had more of it to watch right this minute! The second season is about to begin, but I can’t watch livestream because my free WiFi connection isn’t good enough: videos stop running at some point, or else they bumble through to the end, stopping and starting every few minutes. Thus, I waited until it came out on DVD to see the entire first season; now I’ll have to wait for the second.
I’m not going to give any summaries or recaps here, but there will no doubt be “spoilers.” To tell you the truth I’m a little sick of this spoiler warning bullshit—which I’ll expound upon at some other time.
Like Regina Specter’s song in the opening of the show says, “Remember their faces,” and I vividly remember every one of them . These characters are so well-drawn, their stories so compelling, they’ve become embedded deep in the neurons of my brain. I suppose I’ll just have to subsist on memories for how ever many months it takes…and in the meantime, I have a few opinions about the goings-on.
Q: What makes this show so terrific?
A: It’s about women. Women’s lives, one hundred percent and more real than any so-called reality show.
Example: A group of prisoners sit in a circle hatching plans so Daya can have her baby without revealing that the father is one of the guards, who she’s in love with. Big Red, Bitch-Goddess of the Prison Kitchen, solemnly advises Daya in a thick Russian accent (I’m paraphrasing here), “Think carefully: every decision you make now is going to affect your family for a long time. Welcome to motherhood.” That just about slayed me.
Piper Chapman, the main character, sleep-walks through life, as everyone accuses her of doing, letting whatever happens to her happen, taking no responsibility for any of it. She doesn’t seem to realize that words have consequences, that when she tells Healy, her prison counselor, to go fuck himself, he’ll turn on her in the most vicious way he can conjure up. It’s only beginning to dawn on her that you can get into all kinds of trouble saying the wrong things in prison; for instance, if you tell a seriously disturbed religious fanatic her beliefs are a crock of shit, she will seek revenge. In the last episode Chapman gave lip service to accepting responsibility for the crime that got her into jail, but her words sounded hollow and unconvincing. She still blames Alex, her ex-lover and partner in crime, who did indeed turn her in to get less time herself.
I adore Alex, and I can’t stand Piper for causing her so much heartache. Cruelly she abandoned Alex on the heels of her mother’s sudden death, with Alex begging Piper to just accompany her to the funeral. Piper walked out and slammed the door, muttering some nonsense about her needs. When the series begins, her affair with Alex is long since over and she’s engaged to a nebish of a man who understands even less of how the world works than she does. Larry, who looks exactly like the preppie writer wanna-be he is, uses Piper’s situation as a stepping-stone to a career: he writes an article for the New York Times about his experience of her imprisonment. Not content with the attention he gets, he pushes the envelope by chatting about it on Urban Tales, a fictive NPR show emceed by one Murray Kind, a shoo-in for Ira Glass of This American Life. Jenji Kohan, who adapted Piper Kerman’s memoir, Orange Is The New Black: My Year in a Woman’s Prison, for the Netflix series, told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross that Urban Tales is a take on This American Life, and she’s an Ira Glass fan. So why didn’t Ira himself play the role? ‘I asked Ira if he would do it and he politely declined,’ Kohan said.
Not only does Larry appropriate Piper’s story for his own benefit, he tells tales out of prison about the other inmates, who despise Piper for the things she said about them. He’s clueless about where she is and with whom, and that he could seriously hurt her with his idle chatter. As for the sleep-walking Piper, she barely confronts him on it, and never tells him straight out to knock it off: she still wants to marry the creep! In their last phone conversation, when I wanted her to rip him a new pair, verbally at least, she sobbed pitifully when he broke off their engagement. Little does she realize, the jerk did her a favor.
But she can’t go back to her hot lesbian lover: Alex won’t allow Piper near her anymore, and at the conclusion of Season One Piper is completely and utterly alone. As much as I’ve come to dislike her, I did feel sorry for her. None of the inmates want to be her friend; some even despise her. Her counselor, Mr. Healy, simply walks away laughing while the crazed religious fanatic goes at Piper with a razor. The only thing Piper has going for her is remembering the street-fighting techniques the black girls taught to her gratis—and she uses them. As the show ends Piper is smashing Ms. Jesus to a bloody pulp, and we’re left wondering if the nutcase survives the beating.
Well, I can hardly wait for Season Two, though after that ending I’m afraid it’ll start out with Piper in solitary, aka the SHU: oftentimes I just can’t watch scenes of solitary confinement. It terrifies me, and I empathize too much with the prisoner to watch what she goes through. I braved Piper’s first trip to the SHU, and the fact that it didn’t bother me inordinately is an indication it wasn’t that intense, unlike true stories I’ve read, or the portrayal, in his biopic, of Reuben (Hurricane) Carter’s time in isolation. I’m not criticizing Orange on this; I’m glad it wasn’t unbearable, since I don’t want to have to skip one single minute of Orange Is The New Black. Ever.