If you ever wondered what HBO’s Oz and Showtimes’ Weeds would produce if they had a love child, then look no further than the Netflix original Orange Is The New Black. And if you were like me, and watched the trailer thinking, “So Donna from That ‘70s Show is going to get naked a lot and Jason Biggs is sure to schedule a conjugal visit with a pie,” you’d be wrong! Spoiler alert: No one has sex with baked goods (yet) and Donna only gets naked once.
Jenji Kohan, who brought you Weeds, has created another masterpiece, this time with fewer suburban moms and more bible-thumping inmates. I got hooked early, when it dawned on me that Orange features some of the most well-written and wonderfully acted female characters on television. A good portion of them are closely based on real people from Piper Kerman’s memoir, which shares the namesake of the series, combined with the creative powers of Jenji.
It’s a recipe that works well, so we’ve graciously let the entire cast pass this semester.
Piper’s drawn some criticism for being wishy-washy (maybe not as much as Breaking Bad‘s Skyler White), but that’s because she’s got tough competition. There are way too many rich characters in the season who don’t have to put up with being fish-out-of-water and can throw around gif-worthy retorts all day.
But Piper’s new to the clink, and she has to quickly navigate the shark infested waters of female pris. Yeah, she cries a lot and coos “I love you” to her fiance every moment she gets. But wouldn’t you? Just wait — Kohan’s setting us up for some Walter White-esque character transformations, and Piper’s already broken bad by the final moments of the first season. I’m looking at you, Pennsatucky. Her most badass moment? Convincing the paraplegic juvenile who’s set on a life of crime that the scariest part of prison isn’t the people you’re surrounded by, it’s “coming face-to-face with who you really are.” And, of course, the final addendum, “Bitches gotta learn.”
Larry’s put in a tough spot. He loves the shit out of Piper, but his time with her is limited to short, one-way phone calls and weekly visiting hours, which is why he comes off as overly saccharine with the excessive “I love you’s in small amounts of time. He becomes a more dynamic character once he publishes his New York Times article and does the radio interview with fake Ira Glass, in which he shares unflattering characteristics about Piper’s fellow inmates and the hope that Piper isn’t engaging in lesbian sexual activity. It’s the only way he can send a signal to his distant fiance, the one woman he wouldn’t like to imagine in another woman’s arms. It finally makes him an interesting, active character who punishes the woman he loves, like anyone whose fiance is having an affair with an ex-girlfriend in prison would do. As she starts a grow a pair in prison, Larry loses whatever he had to begin with. It’s sad. But the good news is that at least you get a B+, Larry!
I wish I could have experienced Alex from Piper’s perspective, because then I’d like her more. Her sly, smarmy charm was lost on me, and I would have sympathized with Piper much more if I, too, had fallen in love with Vause. But she’s smart, and a great character for inciting conflict because she toys with Larry and Piper’s relationship in the same way she deals drugs — marionetting from uptop, under the radar. She’s manipulative, and still Piper’s weakness ten years later. She’s also the only female character in the prison to threaten rape (on Pennsatucky in “Blood Donut”), even if it’s in a cheeky way. And that just about sums her up: cheekily rapey, especially when it comes to Piper’s emotions.
I like Healy a lot, but one question remains unanswered. Why does he hate lesbians so much? We get that that’s a thing in prison — sexual activity is a no no. But Healy has it out for the lesbians, and we want to know why. We love that he’s a dude governed by his insecurities and that those have transformed him into a sadistic, over-compensating figure of authority, but he goes out of his way from the first scene he’s in to warn Piper that she better not become “gay for the stay.” Aside from that, he’s a great character who probably represents most of the people in charge at prison — those who lead sad, lean-cuisine driven lives topped with mail-order Russian brides who hate them.
George ‘Pornstache’ Mendez
Most of the characters experience drastic transformations, but none so much as the pornstachiest of them all. Mendez starts off as pure evil, dealing drugs in exchange for blow jobs, pissing in the camp’s Thanksgiving gravy, and finally driving the most endearing, puppy-eyed inmate to kill herself, but by the end, he’s in love! And powerless.
We can’t say he deserves an A based on his behavior, but as a character whose choices are driven by his trigger-happy penis, it’s refreshing to begin to see his softer side. It makes him more complex, and hopefully, in the next season, we’ll get to see more of that in flashbacks from his previous life.
Galina ‘Red’ Reznikov
She sucker-punches and punctures a fake boob. She throws Mendez’s drugs down the toilet. How could you not give her an A? We’ll forego the shoddy Russian accent for now. Actions speak louder than words. We salute you, Capt. Janeway.
Tasha ‘Taystee’ Jefferson
Three instances sum up the way we feel about Taystee: “Barbeque sauce on my titties,” white people politics, and dancing on her way out of the prison and into the real world. It’s a good thing she can’t stomach the outside world, because Taystee is our cherry on top.
Nicky’s the fun, hilarious lesbian we all know and love. She’s strikingly similar to Piper, atleast socioeconomically speaking, but couldn’t be less like Piper in her ability to bounce around the prison with ease. She might even be the Sliding Doors version of Piper, had Piper never abandoned her drug-courier life ten years prior. Overall, we love Nicky because she’s there to help other people with their problems. She never moans about her own, even when Morello dumps her.
Sophia’s endlessly witty, snappy, and quietly hurting. She’s not selfish, but there was one thing she had to do for herself — get a sex change — and then it’d be all good. Now, with a son who’s ashamed of his transexual father and a wife who’s spending more time with their pastor, Sophia’s hurting in a way that her government-issued hormone treatments won’t fix. She never complains though, and it’s her sophisticated, clever, chin-up attitude that makes us fall in love with her. That and her craftiness with duct tape.
Dayanara Diaz & John Bennett
A- & A-
Daya and John are great, but sometimes it’s hard to see when that hokey, romantic music always ushers them into a doe-eyed scene in the janitor’s closet.Their relationship is on fire, but always squelched by the blaring music trying to tell you that they like each other. If their relationship is going to work, they’re going to need better lines that don’t require back-up singers.
The reason this season gets better episode by episode is that Kohan’s leading us up to Pennsatucky. It must be. Maybe it’s because she’s so well acted by Taryn Manning, or maybe it’s because she makes you the most incensed, but every time she’s on screen, we can’t help but put down the Ben & Jerry’s. Our best moment with her is during her flashback, when she kills an abortion provider for “disrespecting her.” It gives us an understanding of where she comes from, and the one-eighty reversal she’s taken in the opposite extreme. Maybe we can’t relate to her zealous, often crazed devotion to God, but we can certainly understand the poverty and bullying that led her there. All we can say is, hot damn.
Orange is the New Black Season 1
AThe first half of the season is good, but the second half is triple times that. In “WAC Pack,” the writers begin to throw more chili peppers in the stew, from then on out sabotaging Piper’s relationship with Larry while bolstering her ties to Alex, complicating Red’s kitchen with Mendez’s drugs, then confusing him — and Bennet — with Mendez’s newfound love for Dayanara, and finally ending the season on Piper’s lowest moment, when she’s alienated everyone close to her.
There’s a lot of material worth binge-watching in here, and we regret nothing.