Now in its third season, Orange is the New Black has plumped for a fluid style of storytelling, allowing the interweaving strands of plot to meander and mingle together organically, rather than being satellites orbiting a dominant narrative. This new style is well suited to the talented ensemble cast and gives writer Jenji Kohan more space to unflinchingly tackle a wider spectrum of issues than the two previous seasons and the quality of the show is all the better for it.
The first season was framed with the story of Piper Chapman, the alpha and omega of floppy blonde wank. The story of the poor little rich girl recoiling with Bambi eyes at the criminal savages before finding it within herself to extend acceptance and benevolence to her fellow detainees could verge on tiresome, particularly as Piper, a drug trafficker, was probably one of the few inmates who deserved a bit of incarceration. The show was more sophisticated in its outlook than some of its harsher critics gave it credit for. The implication was that prison ought to be the great social equaliser – status on the outside world evaporates, your uniform is beige and your arse is fair game for a cavity search. And yet, prison is not an equaliser. The structures of oppression and privilege are replicated over and over again within its walls. Yet, allowing one of the most privileged characters to dictate the interpretation almost made the show itself complicit in the very thing it was criticising.
This season does not allow itself to fall into that trap. The viewpoint of the marginalised is key this time around as the show launches into a wide-range critique of the long and short term impact on privatisation of public services, the inhumanity of capitalist venture and the damage it inflicts on the vulnerable. It’ll make you feel awful and sad and a bit sick. But in a fun way!
Characters that have previously been side-lined are given more focus. Just as the show transformed Suzanne from a seemingly offensive stereotype into one of the most beloved characters, Chang, Big Boo and silent Norma are all given their turn in the spotlight. Even the awful white trash women, the only disadvantaged group that liberals don’t feel guilty about sneering at, are fleshed out and thoroughly humanised. No character is allowed to be light relief or simplistically painted. In Orange is the New Black, ugly waters run deep. Ridicule is always undercut with venomous brutality and the focus is always on the victim in their suffering, their flaws and their humanity.
Mental health issues have been danced around since season one, mainly focussing in on Suzanne. This season focusses more on the common and garden variety of mental illness; depression. Depicting depression on screen is always difficult, mainly because depressed people are deeply uninteresting to look at. They don’t do much. It’s kind of the whole thing. This problem is often dealt with dramatically by glamorising the illness. Orange is the New Black manages to swerve past both of these, creating storylines that are neither boring nor sensational. Another notoriously difficult issue for dramatists is rape and again, the show does an excellent job, neither descending into mawkishness nor insensitivity.
Women’s prisons in America and the UK are stuffed to the rafters with depressed women and abused women so it’s great to see both of these tackled so uncompromisingly. The third bread and butter staple of the women’s prison system are drug addicts. Here, the show doesn’t pull its punches here either. Unlike depressed women, addicts are not boring. They are, on the other hand, deeply unpleasant and irritating as fuck. Nicky is an awful, awful wanker. She’s self-destructive, selfish and she refuses to take responsibility for her ridiculous actions. She’s also one of the most lovable characters on the show. The consequences of her love-hate affair with heroin have devastating consequences in this series and the ugly nature of addiction and the inhumanity of the counterproductive war on drugs are spelled out in a beautiful and subtly crafted sequence.
In Orange is the New Black we have an unlikely successor to The Wire. Both shows share a cause – a humanist-orientated critique of America’s bureaucracy, political short sightedness and the effects of pathological capitalism. While not as literary or as comprehensive as The Wire, Orange is the New Black is still capable of packing a serious political punch in amongst the hot lesbians, boobs and dollops of vaginal discharge.