It seems rare, unfortunately, that a quality tv series is aimed primarily at women without feeding into gender stereotypes. Of course, there are plenty of series aimed at a general audience whose lead happens to be a woman. But the pickings get slim if you look for something substantial with a primarily female cast, where the drama doesn’t revolve around men. (So no naive, romantic dross or reality tv series about staggeringly superificial housewives. ) Maybe this is why Orange is the New Black feels like such a breath of fresh air, despite mostly taking place in a dank prison.
ONB is about the women inhabiting said prison. Men are incidental to the plot, mostly featuring as dickish hinderances or as incompetents to be pitied. Initially we get to know the inmates through Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), an upstanding citizen who has to serve eight months for at one time smuggling drugs for a girlfriend. But especially during the second season, the attention often shifts to other inmates. Through flashbacks, there are reveals about their history, explaining how they ended up behind bars. These are characters with a capital C, mostly believable, though some seem larger than life. Cartoonish aspects aside, their stories are captivating. They often make you feel sympathy, but a few make you realize that someone is more insane than you initially thought.
ONB is based on a book of the same name, by the ‘real’ Piper Chapman. Major liberties were taken with the source material, and more liberties will likely be taken in future seasons, so it’s probably best to forget about ONB‘s origins and see the series as total fiction. The book allegedly isn’t all that good in any case. Looking online, it becomes clear that many viewers do not like Piper as the lead character. And she does have an edge to her, at times selfish, cruel and annoyingly wishy-washy. But for me she remained interesting enough to carry the series, even when this was no longer required of her. I do wonder about Piper’s role in the third season and beyond. The romantic subplot with her former, drug dealing girlfriend seems to be going in circles. And the adventures of Piper’s boyfriend and Piper’s best friend while she is locked up, just aren’t as interesting as anything going on inside the prison.
The series is pleasingly casual about sexuality and sexual orientation. Piper has a boyfriend, has been with a woman and still has interest in being with that woman. So she is good for the visibility of bisexuals, one could say, except that the term ‘bisexual’ is never used. This has lead to criticism, as bisexual visibility is a hot topic these days. While gay and lesbians are coming out in ever-greater numbers, bisexuals tend to remain undercover, leading people to doubt their existence. Bisexuals with an opposite-sex partner may not feel the need to be out in the open and bisexuals with a same-sex partner may fear not being taken seriously or fear being accused of not ‘picking a side’. But the women in ONB don’t seem all too concerned about labels, too busy enjoying their often fluid sexuality. Some are resolutely lesbian, others unwaveringly straight, but a fair few are situational and just enjoy what they find on their path.
Another interesting aspect of the cast is a transgender woman who is actually being played by a transgender actrice (Laverne Cox). Taken together with the overwhelmingly well-reviewed series Transparent – which I plan to watch soon – this seems like a good sign for trans visibility. Recurring trans roles on television have been close to non-existent until now.
The second part of the second season, sees ONB firing on all cylinders. The cast is gelling and there is a complex web of shifting allegiances to hold your attention. But there are also some warning signs that the series will start to repeat itself in the third season, with plot points that do not need to be revisited staging a comeback. Going by the final episode of the second season, we may be able to trust the writers and assume that they know what they are doing. This finale cleverly juggles various story strands. The final scene is supremely satisfying, two stories unexpectedly colliding in a way that is emotionally satisfying as well as hilarious. The killer final line alone will make you want to see the third season, asap. Well, that – and the desire to see more of Kate Mulgrew’s awesome hair.