Orange is the New Black is like a pirate broadcast from a happier, matriarchal universe where women dominate the airwaves, and we just happened to get one of their prison dramas.
Season two wasn’t perfect, and that’s OK. This show doesn’t need a handicap. It’s not the kind of show where we have to wave away great swaths of imperfection (LOST) or the kind of great show where we have to overlook one (or more) weak performances (January Jones on Mad Men). Nope, this show is mostly fantastic from bow to stern. Let me try to break down why:
It’s got one of the deepest benches on TV.
Plenty of shows have one or two great actors with a few duds, but OITNB has nary a weak link in its entire starting lineup. It’s so strong, in fact, that they didn’t even need to focus on Taylor Schilling’s Piper this season. (More on that later.) In addition, it’s the kind of show that can attract top-shelf guest stars for one-offs. There was a mild amount of online grousing about season two’s first episode, which shifted the scene from Litchfield Federal to a larger, scarier prison in Chicago. The conventional wisdom was that if OITNB were a traditional series that dropped weekly, the negative reaction from fans would’ve been harsher. Only the “all at once” delivery of Netflix saved the show from allegations of a first-episode shark-jump.
The Chicago episode was not only one of my favorite episodes of the season — my top choice was Morello’s big twist episode — but it also demonstrated the depth of OITNB’s bench. Lori Petty, who teetered on the brink of superstardom back in the 90s, turns up as a memorably crusty old con. (She also gets bonus points for being from my hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn.) Writer/producer Rebecca Drysdale — who kind of looks like showrunner Jenji Kohan — appears as a creepily OCD cellmate.
I’m rewatching HBO’s seminal drama The Wire right now, and when you compare the casts of those two shows, OITNB acquits itself proudly. Like The Wire, OITNB is packed with bit players whose feel lived-in and true, their inner-lives as active in our imaginations as the writers’.
But day-players like Drysdale are only the tippy-tip of the iceberg that is this show’s strength, which is so vast that …
Kohan could shift the season’s focus away from Shilling and have a better show.
Like The Wire, OITNB uses a whitebread archetype to lure viewers into a show that is predominantly about minority characters. The ethnic balance isn’t as tilted in favor of minorities as The Wire, but it’s enough to warrant notice and praise.
In The Wire’s case, our “in” was that classic American archetype, the shitheel, boozing, hardscrabble cop, Det. Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West in one of the decade’s great extended performances). I wouldn’t say that Shilling’s Piper is as huge an asshole as McNulty, but she’s certainly a piece of work, having dumb-assed her way into the drug trade. Like McNulty, she’s a slave to her desires, following Laura Prepon’s Alex into the flashy underworld. (I’m being hard on her, of course. No one thinks with their figurative johnson more than McNulty, but I think the comparison stands.)
I’m not sure if “privileged blond white girl” is as hoary an archetype as the boozing, self-destructive police detective, but it’s a familiar enough trope that I appreicated Piper’s demotion to secondary player in favor of the trio of Taystee, Poussey and Black Cindy. Taystee and Black Cindy were mostly window dressing in season one, occasionally dropping in to deliver a bit of wacky wisdom and little else. But given that Kohan, et al, introduced Lorraine Toussaint’s Vee as the season’s archvillain, the show’s focus by necessity had to shift from Piper to Taystee.
Hell, I’d mount the argument that season two belonged to Taystee, whose storyline cannily illustrated the incredible pull that mentors — good or bad — have on us, even into adulthood.
And now that I’ve brought up Vee …
Let’s all raise a toast to Lorraine Toussaint’s performance — but there’s a problem.
Villains are usually marquee roles, but in the case of OITNB, adding a villain to gen-pop was more problematic. I’ll talk more about Pornstache in a moment, but it was far easier to process a screw as a villain than a fellow inmate. Of course, prison is a hellacious place, but let’s face it — Litchfield Federal has a whiff of Shawshank about it, a patina of nostalgia and wish-fulfillment. On the whole, it’s a pretty cushy place for a convict to land. To be sure, the show acknowledges this idea when Piper thinks she’s been relocated to Chicago, but it detracts from the show’s credibility to see prison depicted as such a wacky, comfortable place.
(Side note: Nowhere online will you find a better skewering of OITNB’s portrayal of prison life than you will in the Washington City Paper’s multi-part interview/recap series with an actual female ex-con.)
In addition to Litchfield’s overall comfiness is its cast of appealing, empathetic characters. Virtually every character on the show has a relatable, understandable backstory – except Vee. She’s portrayed as a monster from the get-go. Again, it would make more sense to see a guard cast in an unflinchingly evil light, but for OITNB to show us a prisoner with few to no redeeming qualities felt strange.
I want to strike a delicate balance here. Toussaint makes a great bad guy, though her character comes off as one-dimensional. That would be complaint enough for a show that’s packed to the rafters with fully-realized women, but it makes me queasy to praise her performance, given that it embodies a pretty nasty stereotype — the “evil foster mom,” as expertly explained by Amy Woolard over at Indie Wire:
Taystee tells us these facts about her life, but we don’t grasp what makes her experience different or important in the context of our non-fictional lives. Instead, we’re given a troubling stereotype in Vee, the “evil foster mother” who intentionally takes on wards to exploit them into her drug ring.
Woolard expands on her point with a look at Crazy Eyes:
The problem is not so much that OINTB’s back-stories are not to be believed; it’s more so that these less-common stories reinforce the general public’s confirmation bias about important social issues, and as such they betray the true widespread crises within the criminal justice system and society at large. Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren is an entertaining, powerful, endearing character. But portraying her as so physically violent belies the experience of the majority of people with mental health issues: they are much more likely to be the victims of violence than to perpetrate it. To send the false message isn’t just artistic license; it’s actually damaging misinformation—especially in an era when nearly 45% of inmates in federal prison have symptoms of serious mental illness, such as major depressive symptoms like attempted suicide, extreme loss of appetite and extreme insomnia, and psychotic disorders that produce delusions or hallucinations, among others. Crazy Eyes’s suggestibility to violence, at the hands of Vee, becomes a much more heavy-handed theme of Season Two than the notion that Suzanne is being victimized and likely not receiving proper mental health treatment.
I’m with Woolard — OITNB doesn’t need to be a documentary, and I for one appreciate the show’s often-zany tone. For me, it doesn’t detract from the human drama; it merely underlines it. I’m also loath to give Kohan and her crew a hard time when they’re kicking so much ass otherwise. But when it comes to projects like these, I feel compelled — right or wrong — to hold them to a higher standard, at least until our universe becomes more like the matriarchal parallel universe I alluded to in my lead. When we get more shows like OITNB, then we’ll have more wiggle-room for mustache-twirlers like Vee.
That said, maybe I’m falling into a version of the dreaded “tone argument.” After all, we’ve got a-ways to go before we draw neck-and-neck with the matriarchal universe, and we’re damn lucky to have OITNB. After all, lots of shows run by men have the latitude to introduce a one-note villain for no other reason than to spice up the story. Archvillains are fantastic story engines. Why shouldn’t Kohan be able to have one of her own?
Moving on, I’d add to my list of complaints:
There wasn’t enough Crazy Eyes or Pornstache.
On the subject of Crazy Eyes, I’d echo Woolard’s complaint. She made a nice heavy, and the preternaturally talented Uzo Aduba can do whatever she wants, but her emotional absence from the season was noticeable. She felt like the most powerful avatar for how correctional institutions fail the underprivileged. To omit her from the season’s primary thematic arcs left the show feeling lopsided. Hopefully the showrunners can correct that imbalance in season three.
Pornstache’s absence was more understandable. With Vee in place, the season didn’t need another villain. Still, Pablo Schreiber’s Pornstache is the only true “alpha male” in the show’s lineup. That’s fine, of course. We’re still in the patriarchal universe, with airwaves clogged with alpha males, but he livens things up. (Mary Steenbergen’s casting as his mother suggests that we’re in for an episode from Pornstache’s perspective. Hear, hear.)
Finally, let’s close with some unadulterated praise.
Man. The Morello episode. THE. MORELLO. EPISODE.
Just awesome. Yael Stone’s Morello has been one of my favorites from the get-go. The Australia native crafted a kooky Boston/New England hybrid accent for her white-trash riff on Laura Wingfield. But her perspective episode may have been my favorite of the season, as it revealed a much darker side — she’s been a dangerous stalker this whole time.
But it’s not just that. Morello’s a victim of magical thinking, a malady that’s plagued me in my personal life, even if it hasn’t led me to those kinds of extremes. It can be easy to look ahead to a bright future that’s destined to never arrive. I get it.
Moving on: OITNB show writer Lauren Morelli joked that the show proudly employs “at least 64% of lesbians in the New York City metro area,” and regardless of what the actual percentage is, let’s all sound three cheers for Kohan’s achievement. Using author Piper Kerman’s memoir as a seed, she’s cultivated a showcase for women, women’s stories, LGBTQIA stories, and female performers in general.
Think about how many programs here in the patriarchal universe are showcases for male performers of all different shapes and sizes. Deadwood’s one. The Sopranos is another. Both shows feature huge casts filled with dozens of wonderful faces and skilled character actors. OITNB is a rare creature in that it makes room for female characters in a way that few shows do. I can’t think of another one like it today.