I complain a lot about women in film and tv. I complain a lot about the lack of varied interpretation and interesting characters – about the fact that “women’s shows” are often relegated to a “lady business” ghetto while “men’s shows” are seen as real art. But while I obviously still think this is going on, I’ve noticed an awesome trend recently on television with the prominence of female showrunners and female voices.
Jenji Kohen created Weeds, which is a show I had a love-hate relationship with (namely I loved Andy and hated Nancy). So I approached Orange is the New Black (her new Netflix-based series) with a fair amount of trepidation. Sometimes I found Weeds’ particular brand of “in-your-face” political incorrectness tiresome, and I definitely got bored of the crime and punishment cycle.
And a show about an over-priviledged Smith graduate who is sent to prison 10 years after the fact for helping her lesbian lover smuggle drugs (before later settling down to a life of suburban normality with Jason Biggs) sounded like a hard sell. But watch I did, because I love the new television distribution model of Netflix, and because that damn theme song is catchy.
And I am surprised by how much I love it. Taylor Schilling’s Piper Chapman might be our introduction to the world of Litchfield Prison, but she’s barely even the protagonist most episodes. And far from Nancy Botwin’s particular brand of hedonistic self righteousness, Chapman is a bank of neurosis, guilt, and fear of being boring. The women around her are complex, fascinating, and, most of the time, fucking hilarious.
The show deftly mixes in a lot of social commentary (about the entrenched nature of prisons, about poverty, about immigration, about drugs, and, more than anything else, about the way that people fuck each other up) in between plot lines revolving around mythical chicken sightings and running for prison president. I’m about six episodes in, and I’m still continually surprised by how smart and refreshing it is.
All the acting is across the board fantastic. Kate Mulgrew (yep, my nerdy brethren, Captain Fucking Janeway) plays a Russian matriarch with a quiet dignity that elevates the proceedings. And Taylor Schilling manages to keep Piper from being completely unbearable, which is no easy feet. Trying to pick favorites from the supporting cast is like trying to pick the cutest puppy, but I am particulary enjoying Dascha Polanco’s surprisingly sweet love story and the misplaced anger of Vicky Jeudy’s inmate. I’m not entirely sold on Laura Prepon’s drug smuggling ex-girlfriend, Alex, if only because the character requires she have a steely, removed resolve and inscrutable air of “badness.” Plus I may still have not forgiven her for being Ted’s douchey ex-girlfriend, Karen.
I’ll be tearing through the rest of Orange is the New Black in the next two days and thanking god for Netflix in the face of the summer television drought. I suggest you do the same.