By Caroline Nelson With a series of unglamorous extreme close-ups set to a typically soulful Regina Spektor song, “Orange is the New Black” announces its intentions even before the beginning of its first scene. This is not going to be an exploitation piece nor a dreary exercise in documentary style realism but a look into the lives of a collection of women at a particular place at a particular time.
In this and other respects, “Orange is the New Black” is a good example of one of the reasons that television is eclipsing film in terms of cultural significance and artistic merit. Television, with its significantly longer runtime and ability to feature large casts of characters, can offer its viewers a panoramic view of society. The prison in this series can be seen as a microcosm of contemporary female experience.
Female experience is the key phrase here, since this show is a rarity in a lineup dominated by violent antiheros and obnoxious geniuses. Shows that are centered around women are usually teen dramas or sitcoms which often give the impression that the lives of those who lack a Y chromosome primarily revolve around boyfriends, backstabbing, and of course various articles of clothing. I don’t know about you ladies, but I can only relate to that last one. “Orange is the New Black,” on the other hand, manages to make men peripheral. They skulk around the outside of the narrative as family members, love interests, and the guards who harass, lust after, and condescend to the women at the center.
At the very center of things is Piper Chapman, a young woman with a good education but without much common sense whose periphery involvement with a drug ring landed her in jail. The creators of this show have described Piper as a “Trojan horse,” a privileged white girl who allows them to tell the stories of the other characters, mostly women of color. The problem with this is that while watching the show you can tell that the writers don’t think their protagonist is that interesting. It is difficult to point out exactly what is off about her since she isn’t a badly written or flat character. Possibly it is the way her experiences seem to be self consciously labeled as “white people problems” or possibly it’s that Taylor Schilling’s performance is perfectly adequate. All I know is that after watching the show’s pilot I was interested but ambivalent, and it wasn’t until the second installment, which focused on Kate Mulgrew’s character, that I was hooked.