TV Review - Orange is the New Black

Taylor Schilling as Piper in Netflix's
"Orange is the New Black"
Taylor Schilling stars as Piper Chapman, a woman who is sentenced to 15 months in prison for running drug money for her former lesbian lover Alex, played by Laura Prepon. Piper committed this crime ten years ago but is only now being punished for it. In the interim, Piper broke up with Alex and never again had a lesbian lover. She instead got a male fiance named Larry, played by Jason Biggs.

Once Piper is in prison, she encounters various women who like the HBO series Oz we get to know intimately. Piper remains at the center, but the show really rises as an ensemble piece where there ceases to be one star or a single protagonist. It essentially becomes like a soap opera. Except, the tone of the show pushes it more toward being a comedy than a hardcore drama like Oz.

Unfortunately, as such, the comedy didn't work for me. I somewhat laughed at the ridiculous situations that creator Jenji Kohan and her writers crafted. The culture clash of Piper's privileged, health-conscious, artisan-product-making nature against the multiethnic, poverty-stricken, tough-as-nails nature of practically every other prison inmate was a good source of comedy, but it's all too hackneyed. The touches of toilet humor were either expected or just too crudely simple a device.

I didn't need to see Larry fart in bed. I didn't need to see an inmate take a piss on the floor for no real apparent reason. I guess it's supposed to be analogous to how an animal marks its territory by urinating around it, but the idea then equates the inmate's action to that of an animal. Given that the inmate in question is a black woman, I felt it was slightly offensive to compare a black woman to an animal or at least in part portray her like one.

Uzo Aduba as Crazy Eyes in Netflix's
"Orange is the New Black"
That inmate is called Crazy Eyes, aka Suzanne, played by Uzo Aduba. Crazy Eyes is a lesbian who takes a liking to Piper. While there are other lesbian characters, the sole black lesbian is portrayed as being crazy and like an animal, and I didn't appreciate that, but it does lead to a conversation about lesbianism and homosexuality.

Natasha Lyonne plays Nicky, one of several cell mates that Piper has initially. She's a lesbian. Lyonne was famously in the film But I'm a Cheerleader (1999), a cult classic, lesbian comedy. Lyonne appears to be typecast here. Only, Nicky is far more aggressive and confident. Nicky actually pushes Piper to address her lesbian issues, which Piper initially would rather not address.

One thing that Oz explored is the idea that just because a person engages in gay sex doesn't make that person gay. In a confined situation, people, particularly men, will turn to whomever is available for companionship or to satisfy physical desires. This idea was certainly explored through the character of Tobias Beecher, played by Lee Turgeson. Tobias never had a homosexual relationship prior to going to prison yet he readily embraced it. Piper, on the other hand, did have a homosexual relationship prior to prison, yet she doesn't readily embrace it. She runs from it in fact.

Piper calls herself or people refer to her as a former lesbian. I don't think that this is a correct line of thinking. A former lesbian implies that a person can just stop being a lesbian, as if lesbianism or being gay were something that could be cured, but it's not a disease. Either you are or you aren't.

At one point, Piper references the Kinsey scale and calls out how some people fall in between. Yes, there are bisexuals, but Piper never claims that. In the first episode, she calls her lesbian affair "a phase." Again, it's a bad line of thinking that a lesbian affair was a phase. Yes, it's okay if people want to experiment, but, as depicted on screen, Piper's relationship with her girlfriend Alex was not just an experiment.

Yet, her denial of her homosexuality is almost a tacit equation of homosexuality to criminality. Piper blames Alex for her incarceration. Her reaction to the initial separation of the two ten years ago was for Piper to be with a man, as if to say if she's straight, then she won't be a criminal.

Nevertheless, the two most interesting characters are Red, played by Kate Mulgrew, and, Sophia, played by Laverne Cox. Red is a Russian immigrant who runs the kitchen. She's comparable to J.K. Simmons' character in Oz, only not as racist or murderous. Sophia is a transsexual woman of color who has a wife and son on the outside.

Episode 3 focuses on how Sophia ended up in prison and the circumstances leading to it. Sophia is a woman but she was born a man. She used to be a firefighter, former FDNY, named Marcus who was married to a woman called Crystal with a teenage son named Michael. The major problem in the episode is Sophia is being denied medication that she needs to maintain her feminine features.

Sophia has gone through the full transition. She has a semi-nude moment where we see that this former man now has breasts and whose penis and testicles are now gone. Yet, to keep certain and more masculine features from returning, she has to take medication like estrogen. When the prison officials stop giving her that estrogen, she becomes worried.

One of the best scenes in that episode is when Sophia asks Crystal to sneak the drugs into prison and Crystal says no because she could get into trouble. Crystal challenges Sophia in the moment about the true value of that medication. In a time period where gender has been put into question and/or into flux, this series doesn't do what most movies of the past decade and more don't do, and that is address or state what that gender really is.

Like with the recent film Laurence Anyways, the essential questions are what is it to be a woman and what is it that transsexuals feel that tells them they need to be women. In addition, one asks how is womanhood expressed and why is it expressed in the way that it is. For example, Sophia, while she was still Marcus, wore a bra and then eventually gets breast implants. Why? Does that mean that Sophia believes she needs big breasts in order to be a woman? There are a lot of women who are born flat-chested or have their breasts removed due to cancer concerns. Are they less than or no longer womanly as a result?

In another scene between Sophia and Crystal, Crystal asks Sophia to keep her penis for Crystal's sake sexually, but Sophia selfishly refuses. Again, the question is why. What is the value of removing it for Sophia? In the documentary Becoming Chaz, Chaz Bono who was born a female transitions into a male and considers getting a penis but ultimately decides not to do so. Chaz realizes that his genitalia is not something that anyone will ever see beyond his partner or spouse, so while other factors played a part, it's not going to be of great value to him to make that change. For Sophia, it's different, and I don't know why.

Matt McGorry as Bennett in Netflix's
"Orange is the New Black"
Like with Oz, the series lets us get to know the prison guards, most of whom are male. Unlike with Oz, the show lets us go home with the guards. It gives us more of a sense of life outside the federal prison. Two of the prison guards in particular become well-known to us. The first is George Mendez aka Pornstache in honor of his creepy facial hair. He's played by Pablo Schreiber. At first, he seems like just a character in the purely stereotypical way, but his performance is slick and humorous enough by the end.

His character is really only redeemed by the other prison guard whom we also get to know, John Bennett, played by Matt McGorry. Bennett falls in love with one of the inmates, a beautiful, full-figured, Hispanic girl named Dayanara Diaz, played by Dascha Polanco. Following their relationship was more interesting to me than Piper and Larry's because there are some twist and turns that make Bennett's situation a bit more thrilling.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated TV-MA.
Running Time: 51 mins/per episode.
Available on Netflix exclusively.


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