Friday, 13 September 2013

Orange Is The New Black (TV) (2013)

It is, unfortunately, still a thing to believe that women aren't funny. I'm not sure why this is, but you'll find no shortage of this sort of thing in the world of comedy, and especially so online. Just a quick google will take you straight to highly regarded publications pushing this sort of thing too.

Personally, I just don't get it. Some of my favourite sitcoms are focussed on and also produced by women. Tina Fey's 30 Rock is the only sitcom I've made the effort to watch from start to finish because it's that good, and Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope in Parks and Rec is a hilarious lead. Even as I'm writing this, I've got QI on in the background and Shappi Khorsandi is killing it.

So, on to Orange Is The New Black: a black-comedy/drama set in a women's prison. The (nearly) all female cast is just one of the risky things about OITNB. As outlined above, there's the whole "women aren't funny thing", which is bullshit, but there's the risk of not everyone getting black comedy and then there's the new Netflix model it was released on. OITNB is a Netflix original, a lot like the lauded House of Cards. It was released all at once, ready to be binged or enjoyed at your own leisure.

There were a couple of risks, and straight out the gate I'm not going to say it all completely paid off in droves. I did really enjoy this first series but there are some flaws.

First, the good: It works as a black comedy. As you can imagine, there's a lot of opportunity for darkly funny things to happen in prison. People go a bit stir crazy, some of them are there because they're already crazy and the rules from normal society just plain don't apply any more. The cast fill out the possibilities nicely. Segregated by race, the cliques cover a cross section of criminals. You've got your hillbilly meth head born again Christians, your Russian-headed kitchen crew, the current and former junkies and all the individual "unique" cases inbetween. At the centre of it all there's the fish out of water main character of Piper Chapman. A middle-class, college educated woman about to be married, she comes to prison woefully unprepared after being found guilty of carrying drug money across the border over a decade ago. Taylor Shilling takes on the naive and skittish role well and manages to embody some of the changes that anyone undoubtedly goes through with a stay in a correctional facility.

More good: OITNB works as a drama. The stories that some of these women (well, a few of them are better described as girls) have are genuinely touching and humanising. Either told through flashbacks to the outside world or through the rarer moment of vulnerable honesty between inmates, most of the major characters get fleshed out well enough that you can actually start to care about them, and more than how well they'll be able to set up the next punchline.

The struggle comes from lining up the balance of comedy and drama. As the series goes on it shifts away from the comedy quite heavily. It's a smart move in the end; it's a little difficult to go from a drug overdose to a toilet gag smoothly. But it does shift the tone of the show drastically. At the start OITNB is pretty much 50-50 humour and drama, but towards the end it's just pretty depressing and dark, with moments of levity rather than those of outright comedy. It's still compelling, but it just feels a little inconsistent.

I'd recommend Orange Is The Ne Black to anyone looking for something a little different from their TV entertainment, but it's not going to set the world alight like Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad. If anything it's worth checking out because there's at lest a handful of characters that real steal the show. The born again methhead with her cultist followers, and the formerly homeless, corn-rowed blonde girl with a throat tattoo and strange sense of honour are two particular standouts.

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