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It's Not Exploitation, It's Netflix

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Orange is the New Black: Season 1


Prison life hasn't really done well when it comes to being portrayed on series television. Though there have been a few series that would do storylines about it, the main series that is the standard is HBO's Oz, a relentlessly brutal, perpetually dark and incredibly claustrophobic look at life in a maximum security prison. Hard to watch, harder still to appreciate, it perhaps did it's job to well in expressing the desolation behind stone walls.
When Netflix announced that its second original series Orange is the New Black, a story about a twenty-something woman who gets caught as a drug mule and takes a plea of fourteen months\ in a woman's prison, I was perhaps even more reluctant to give it safe passage than I was House of Cards. Not only did I have bad memories of Oz more than a decade after the fact, the show's creator Jenji Kohan was also the mind behind Weeds, a series that never appealed to me at all, and was so off-putting, it stopped me from watching Breaking Bad until the series was more than half over. Even the high praise and award nominations didn't make me cotton to it. However, with Season 2 less than a week away from premiering, I decided I had to at least give it a chance like I did with House of Cards.
If nothing else, Kohan deserves credit for finally creating a series where there are at least a dozen major female roles, all of them characters who are fully realized. Some of the more fully realized characters include the prison chef, who on the outside was the wife whose husband got involved with the Russian Mafia (Kate Mulgrew finally realizing her potential), a transgender fireman who began to steal credit cards and is now being denied the estrogen to keep her sex change, and Claudette, the head of a Nigerian slave market who murdered a man who hurt one of her girls. Indeed, the ostensible lead, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) almost gets lost among all of the more engaging characters that are going on around her.
This may be one of the more problematic aspect of the first few episodes of the series. Though Schilling is generally superb, watching her flounder about her first few episodes is not nearly as entertaining as it could be. Much like Weeds diminished the criminal activities that were going on by playing black comedy, Orange tries a little too hard to lighten the mood that deals with women behind bars. Piper getting a tampon sandwich after she insults the food, nearly getting starved out by Mulgrew's character, earning the unreturned love of the aptly named Crazy Eyes, who expresses her affection in a fully unappreciated matter--- it's entertaining but one wonders whether it's being done for jokes rather than real portrayals. (And yes, I know the series is based on a true story.) It also seems to be setting up it's own bizarre twists by having Piper sent to the same prison as Alex (Laura Prepon, doing her best work in a while) the woman who used her as a mule, and whom Piper believes gave her up.
I've only seen the first four episodes of the series, and the show doesn't have the absorbing feel of House of Cards. Yet it is a far better show than Oz because it is far less dark than the Oswald was. We are allowed out into the sunlight, the characters are depressed and angry, but there is the slightest ray of hope in their lives that was never nailed down there. The look of desperate hope for Claudette, who so far seems the most heartless woman, when she finally got a letter after years of abandonment, was very moving. The same episode saw a prisoner being paroled, and her former lover not using a stolen weapon to attack her, but rather to pleasure herself--- it's dark humor, but it was definitely there. It's not a perfect series by any means, but it's not exploitive or needless grotesque. That's enough for me to stick with it through season 1. We'll see at the end if its worth the Emmy nods it's almost certainly going to get.
My score: 3.5 stars.