October 2013

Arts & Letters

Watching ‘Orange Is the New Black’

By Marieke Hardy
Pretty on the inside

When pitched ensemble shows about women – whether they feature glossy shopaholics, murderous housewives, 20-something slackers or sexed-up retirees – network executives are notorious for responding in the same way: “Yes, but will the men watch it?”

There is a sense, perhaps, that those with a Y chromosome won’t tune in to the onscreen trials and tribulations of the fairer sex, the same way it is assumed (correctly or not) that while Sydney audiences will happily watch a show based in Melbourne, the moment Melbourne audiences see the Harbour Bridge or a Bondi lifesaver, they will switch off in droves.

Despite these concerns, shows about women are being produced in such vast numbers that “the men” seem to be getting nervous. Lee Aronsohn, co-creator of the execrable Two and a Half Men, tackled this apparently alarming issue last year at the Toronto Screenwriting Conference when he noted that “we’re approaching peak vagina on television, the point of labia saturation”. In case anyone missed his point, he added: “Enough, ladies. I get it. You have periods.”

While Sex and the City broke new ground 15 years ago by focusing on a sexually uninhibited group of female friends, the audacious Golden Girls had led the way 13 years prior to that by daring to showcase four women over the age of 40. There has been a continual stream of successful TV series since, chronicling the complex relationships of women: Gilmore Girls, Desperate Housewives, Good Christian Bitches (shortened to the more family-friendly “GCB after raucous complaint from middle America). It is no longer a genre so much as simply interesting television, and hopefully soon it will cease to be a point of reference altogether for rattled producers such as Aronsohn.

Orange is the New Black, set in a women’s prison, is a recent creation by internet-streaming service Netflix, and it is fair to say at this point that “the men are watching”. Everybody is. The show (screening on Showcase from 9 October) is being torrented, downloaded, picked over and quoted on Facebook. The cast, ranging in fame from “Hey, isn’t that the girl from American Pie?” to a cluster of character actors you’ve likely never seen in leading roles before, has been thrust into the spotlight, acclimatising to the bright lights of press and adoration like divers rising up from the deep sea.  

It’s not the first time a series set in a prison has been a hit with audiences – local Foxtel drama Wentworth (itself a remake of 1980s Australian soap Prisoner), UK drama Prisoners’ Wives, the American Prison Break and the nightmare-inducing Oz were all critically well received and rated solidly. Yet somehow Orange has penetrated the mainstream in a way these series have not.

It’s a slow burner. It’s also easy, at times, to dismiss as a preposterous “there but for the grace of God” fantasy for middle-class white women, until you read the words “based on the memoir My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman” crammed into the closing credits. And yet the fawn-in-the-woods protagonist based on Kerman, Piper Chapman (played by Taylor Schilling), is the least interesting character in the series’ vast ensemble. Spending at least the first five episodes making a surprised O-mouthed face, Schilling’s prissy hysteria wears thin – and it’s not like we’ve never seen an entitled New York hipster having relationship problems on our screens before. No, the real hook for Orange is the irresistible support cast and their wide and varied ages, ethnicities, shapes and sizes, including Russian matriarch Red (Kate Mulgrew, best known for her role as the captain on Star Trek: Voyager), Haitian former child slave Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst) and the transgendered Sophia (played by transgender activist Laverne Cox). It is important for groundbreaking television to reflect the personal, engaging stories of those outside the mainstream’s glare.  

The use of flashbacks – all too often clumsily and fussily handled in television drama – is seamless here, and one of the show’s greatest strengths. The inmates’ backstories adorn the complex paths that have led these women to end up in purgatory. There is also humour that sits – sometimes clunkily – amid the drama. Lines such as “This is more depressing than a Tori Amos cover band” or the wryly knowing “That’s just popular fiction. Like global warming or female ejaculation” betray a writing team itching to show off their zingers. The result is that the inmates’ voices can be uneven – not only are the one-liners too finely crafted, but women who have spent previous episodes scratching their crotches, saying, “Why I oughta stab yawr fuckin’ face awf”, suddenly throw words like “permutations” into their gritty monologues. Yet when we have front-row seats to the raw grief and pain etched onto the faces of these actors, it’s easier to let this slide. Everyone in Orange is splayed open, picked apart. They are dirty and they’re sick and they’re dying inside. It’s this grimness that makes the lighter moments work – one almost applauds a clever-dick quip for the brief respite it provides. 

That all of this has occurred via the fairly untested business model of Netflix makes Orange an even more interesting benchmark for success. Breaking the traditional American cable and network mould by buying a series without having to shoot an expensive pilot, Netflix sells a subscription streaming service that allows audiences to download the entire series to watch in one sitting – and they’ve cut out the middleman by simply producing the content themselves. Orange has been a triumph, as has Netflix’s remake of the BBC miniseries House of Cards. The service is now encouraging networks to cut the pilot budget and move towards more creative ways of making television. Whether they will remains to be seen. Netflix will have to do a lot better than two hit TV shows to prove themselves a contender.

Orange is the New Black is a show about women. But more than that, it is a show about what happens when your world is reduced to its smallest form, and about the shining moments of humanity that can see you through circumstances of banality and privation. Whether “the men” are watching it is unimportant.

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