Orange Is The New Black DVD Review

What’s It About? Orange is the New Black follows Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) as she rights the wrongs of her past, gives up her comfortable New York life and enters a women’s prison. Her present life running a small business with her friend Polly (Maria Dizzia) and living with her fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs) collides with her past one, in which she smuggled drugs with her then girlfriend Alex (Laura Prepon), who ends up in the same prison as Piper. Although not a faithful adaptation, the series is based on the real-life memoir of Piper Kerman, Orange Is The New Black: My Time In A Women’s Prison.

oitnb_pds_029_hVerdict: The Netflix original series offers its audience a perspective of US prison life from the specific, and messy, viewpoint of an attractive, white, middle class woman in a heterosexual relationship – Piper Chapman. And it’s those things – her class, race and sexuality – that form the basis of the show’s emphasis, though its success in dealing with these issues is limited. Immediately on entering the prison, it’s clear Piper is not the norm, unlike many other inmates she has a supporting middle class family with no links to criminality, but the fish-out-of-water scenario gives the show a good launching point, and from the off the episodes are well written.

From there, each episode looks at Piper’s past via flashback and her day-to-day life in prison, while also focusing on the background of an individual inmate. These backstory’s provide an insight into the lives of the women, many of whom are forced into crime by abusive partners or have lashed out in defence of themselves or others in the face of ill treatment. The show is at its best and sharpest during these scenes and they throw the situations of the majority of inmates into sharp contrast with Piper’s own backstory. Whereas she was essentially a young white woman who got bored with life and so took to an exciting life of crime with Alex, everyone else has real problems.

One issue which is handled questionably by the show is that of race. It’s a shame the only way in which television generally is able to explore the lives of lower class black and Latin American women is via a white middle class woman. It’s a classic troupe and as a consequence some of the women become prone to clichés and stereotypes. The show does, however, address the prison’s race politics to often amusing effect – when the women have to vote for representatives, each racial group has their own isolated election, and responding to Piper’s shock, Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) simply says: “Just pretend it’s the 1950s – it makes it easier to understand.”

Transgender actress Laverne Cox plays the part of Sophia Burset, a transgender inmate. Her backstory is told with compassion and the character in general is crafted with wit and sensitivity. Among the shows triumphs, its treatment of gay and transgender-related issues is its greatest accomplishment. Its challenging of prison power politics and the cycle which traps people into reoffending is also commendable and is best exemplified in the story of Tasha ‘Taystee’ Jefferson (Danielle Brooks). On being freed from prison, she finds that she has nowhere to stay, she’s constantly harassed by parole officers and it becomes clear that no one is willing to give her a job so she gets herself put back in prison.

Extras: A wide variety of gag reels and commentaries are available on the DVD as well as four character featurettes.

Final Words: All in all Orange Is The New Black – while it has its flaws – is a well-made and very well written drama which takes on a number of issues often ignored by more mainstream television. Some of the additions to the story (which weren’t in the source text) suffer from a lack of believability – especially the major factor of Piper’s ex and partner in crime turning up in the same prison with her and them rekindling a romance. However what it lacks in believability is made up for by the show’s sense of humour and the plotting which keeps the audience hooked for the whole 13 episode run. The final episode ends on a cliff-hanger, no doubt ensuring an audience for the upcoming second season.

Orange Is The New Black is out on DVD now.