Drama Behind Bars
Review by Matt Owen
Orange Is the New Black is a darkly comedic drama that was produced by Netflix and is based on the memoir of the same name by author Piper Kerman. Spread across seven seasons, the show tells the story of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), as she settles in for a stint at a women's prison in New York. Juggling important topics with offbeat humour, Orange is the New Black immerses viewers in a world of conflict during federal detention. As Piper tries to make the best of her life behind bars, obstacles present themselves frequently, offering a story that's both entertaining and controversial.
Orange Is the New Black starts off strong, with a compelling introduction to the fictional Litchfield Penitentiary through the eyes of imperfect protagonist Piper Chapman. While Piper faces down 15 months behind bars, she is aided by a colourful cast of supporting convicts, including head chef Red (Kate Mulgrew – Star Trek: Voyager), struggling addict Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne – Russian Doll, Poker Face), and more. With Piper's ex-lover, Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), also spending time at Litchfield, things get even more complicated. With its balance of serious storytelling and dark comedy, the show tackles progressive topics about the American prison system, such as racial and sexual discrimination, abuse of authority, and inhumane living conditions. However, the show often maintains a light-hearted tone despite the subject matter, leaving viewers entertained rather than disturbed.
That said, things do take a darker turn in the second season, as the show starts to tackle mob mentality and race issues. New characters like Vee (Lorraine Toussaint – Saving Grace, Rosewood, The Equalizer) shake things up considerably, resulting in frequent instances of violence and a stark change of attitude between inmates. Since the show properly establishes sympathetic characters in the first season, the plot stays intriguing, and more extreme events remain grounded through Piper's perspective. Especially through the second season, Piper is rough around the edges yet charismatic and functions well as an avatar for the viewer while remaining likeable overall.
If anything, the first two seasons of Orange Is the New Black were highly celebrated, as the show garnered dozens of award nominations from prestigious organizations. In total, the show received 16 Primetime Emmy nominations in its first two years, picking up nods in both the Comedy and Drama categories. In fact, Uzo Aduba even won back-to-back Emmys in 2014 and 2015 for her performance as Suzanne Warren, aka “Crazy Eyes”. In total, Orange Is the New Black has been nominated for over 150 television awards, and it's easy to see why when judging the first couple of seasons.
That said, like most shows that run for close to a decade, the quality of the storytelling has notable peaks and valleys, resulting in an uneven viewing experience. Season 3 dials down the dark tone and ends up feeling far sillier than intended, with dull plot lines that drag out to meaningless ends. In an effort to stay fresh, the show occasionally takes brave risks with storytelling, but they rarely pay off. For example, Season 5 takes place across only 3 days rather than several weeks, but the premise is ultimately wasted on weak writing.
Luckily, Orange Is the New Black elevates back to levels of suitable entertainment toward its conclusion, rekindling a bit of the magic of its earlier seasons. Season 6 picks up the pace and sees a shift in locale, while also returning to a more serious narrative. There's also a satisfying wrap-up in the form of Season 7, which cohesively concludes Piper's story while providing a bit of fan service as well.
Overall, Orange Is the New Black is a gripping series with well-written characters, and although it falters in later seasons, it ultimately wraps up nicely. When compared to other high-quality productions set in prisons, such as Oz, Prison Break, or The Night Of, the show still tackles heavy topics, but it does so with a gentler hand. At its worst, characters can feel cartoonish and the plot loses focus, but at its prime, Orange Is the New Black practically demands that you binge-watch it. Whether you choose to commit to the entire series or just dip your toe into the more celebrated initial seasons, Orange Is the New Black offers a captivating tale of a prisoner's daily struggles while living behind bars.
Published on August 31st, 2023. Written by Matt Owen for Television Heaven.