Sunday 23 July 2017

In praise of Orange is the New Black as fifth season kicks off on Netflix

Orange Is The New Black Season 5
Orange Is The New Black Season 5

Pat Stacey

Writers of the award-winning prison drama, Orange is the New Black, have slowed time down to almost a complete standstill for the new season of the series, which is set entirely over the course of a three-day riot, writes Pat Stacey

All the smartest movie and television stars down the decades have known that appearing on Sesame Street is a badge of honour, so you know a series has really made it big-time when the beloved educational children’s programme pays tribute with a parody.

Sesame Street, which has been running for nearly half a century and is 20 times smarter and more entertaining than many shows aimed at adults that I could name, has a history of ragging grown-up television hits.

In the recent past, it’s spoofed such distinctly adults-only series as Game of Thrones, Mad Men, True Blood and Boardwalk Empire — minus, of course, the sex, violence and swear words, but with no shortage of humour and wit.

Its latest target is Netflix’s prison dramedy Orange is the New Black. Entitled ‘Orange is the New Snack’ (see what they did there?), it follows the first day in Litchfield Academy of newbie muppet Piper Snackman (see what they did there, too?), who is appalled to see cookies being served at snack time, challenges the academy’s “snack time moderator” Red, is threatened with a spell in the “shoe” (in this case, a real, oversized shoe that you sit in), but eventually wins everyone around to eating healthy oranges instead.

Long-time Orange is the New Black fans will have no trouble recognising this as a nod to the first season’s showdown between the real Red (Kate Mulgrew) and Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) over whether or not Red’s cooking is edible.

The delightful five-minute parody has gone viral and drawn a hugely positive reaction — although one publication’s hasty claim that it’s “an absurdist masterpiece” is probably taking the whole thing a little more seriously than the smart cookies behind Sesame Street intended.

At any rate, this extra shot of publicity couldn’t have come at a better time as the fifth season of Orange is the New Black arrived on Netflix first thing this morning. Not that the series really needs an extra shot of publicity; it’s turned into a phenomenon all by itself, thank you very much.

Netflix is notoriously tight-fisted when it comes to releasing viewing figures, but the streaming service is happy to admit that, globally, Orange is the New Black, or OITNB as its fans style it (although that’s actually more trouble to type!), is its most-watched series, bigger even than House of Cards, once Netflix’s flagship series and the jewel in its crown. Considering how much there is to watch on Netflix — and there’s considerably more content on the American service than on the one we get here and in Britain — that’s quite an achievement.

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Orange Is The New Black Season 5

It’s doubly impressive when you remember that Orange is the New Black arrived pretty much out of the blue, with relatively little of the advance fanfare that’s now common in television and on streaming sites, where TV series are promoted in the way only movies once were.

House of Cards, for instance, already had a certain degree of audience recognition to build on, in that it was based on the successful BBC series. People familiar with the original knew to expect a labyrinthine tale of political ambition, skulduggery and murder.

But Orange is the New Black has its roots in a less salubrious source: a prison memoir written by a first-time author, Piper Kerman, that few people outside America had probably even heard of, let alone read — although the success of the series no doubt added quite a few international sales.

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Orange Is The New Black Season 5

I haven’t read it either, but by all accounts it’s considerably less expansive and humorous than the series: more an account of the journey of discovery of a white, middle-class woman thrown into an alien environment than an examination of the US women’s prison system — in which the overwhelming majority of inmates, just like their male counterparts, are black — with little self-examination by Kerman of the crime that landed her behind bars in the first place.

Kerman spent little more than a year inside. In the uniquely elastic world of television, however, where days can be as long or as short as the proverbial piece of string, just 10 months have passed in the life of her fictional counterpart Piper Chapman, even though the series is now in its fifth year.

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Orange Is The New Black Season 5

The writers have slowed time down to almost a complete standstill for the fifth season, which is set entirely over the course of a three-day riot over poor conditions, a rebellion that began at the end of the previous season and which echoes the real-life riots in the notorious Attica men’s prison in 1971.

Orange is the New Black returns trailing near-universal praise from critics and multiples of every award known to the television industry. More of an ensemble piece now than when it began, it’s been credited with bringing to the screen the kind female characters of all ages, classes, creeds, colours, sexuality and genders whose stories aren’t usually told on television.

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Orange Is The New Black Season 5

It’s also been lauded for daring to put a character who’s far from sympathetic or likeable front and centre of the action, and for giving American viewers, who otherwise might not know (or might not want to know), an insight into the appalling conditions endured by prisoners in the country’s 6,000 correctional institutions.

Commendable and creatively brave as all this is, Orange is the New Black still harks back to a long, and not always reputable, tradition of women-in-prison stories. Hollywood has been putting women behind bars — and putting them through the emotional and physical mangle — since the days of the pre-Code movies. This genre reached its lowest point in the Sixties and Seventies, when there was an avalanche of women-in-prison exploitation (and sometimes sexploitation) pictures with lurid titles like Caged Heat, Reform School Girls, Black Mama White Mama, Sweet Sugar, Bare Behind Bars, Sadomania and Ilsa the Wicked Warden.

Taylor Schilling on Piper's transformation and OITNB season 5: 'This show has been anything but the status quo'

They tended to share the same basic plot: an innocent young woman is thrown into jail on trumped-up charges and suffers various physical and sexual degradations. Inevitably, there was a heavy emphasis on sado-masochism and lesbian sex, for the delectation of the male audience, naturally.

In a way, television rehabilitated the genre. Well, more or less. One of the most popular ITV series of the 70s was Within these Walls. Starring former British movie queen Googie Withers as a sympathetic governor, it focused more on the lives of the staff than the inmates and looks positively prim by modern standards.

The BBC’s rather more hard-hitting 80s series Tenko put a novel spin on a familiar story by being set in a Japanese internment camp during World War II.

The cheerfully cheap Australian series Prisoner, which was called Prisoner: Cell Block H in other markets to avoid confusion with Patrick McGoohan’s cult favourite The Prisoner, reinstated the old clichés, not least the butch, heavily tattooed lesbian inmate who makes life hell for everyone else, but served them up in a soapy, toned-down version — not surprising, since the series was created by Reg Watson, the man who also gave the world Neighbours and Crossroads, and whose artistic signatures are wobbly sets and wobblier acting.

ITV’s Bad Girls and the Australian series Wentworth Prison — which went into production after Orange is the New Black and is a direct updating of Prisoner: Cell Block H, but with considerably better production values — both met with considerable acclaim.

So did the Spanish series Vis a vis, which goes under the title Locked Up on Channel 4’s on-demand service Walter Presents and strongly resembles Orange is the New Black, even if most of the inmates look more like dolly birds than jailbirds.

Taylor Schilling: Orange Is The New Black's fifth series reflects US 'eruption'

Orange is the New Black stands head and shoulders above all them. Yes, there’s violence, strong language, drug abuse and a considerable amount of lesbian sex; how could you expect there not to be when America’s prison population stands at 2.3 million?

But it’s taken components that had grown stale through overuse and refreshed them by applying them with intelligence, humour and humanity to characters which, for the most part, feel fleshed-out and real.

Orange is the New Black is riding high at the moment. Expectations for the new season are huge. How long can it continue, though, before it deteriorates into soap opera, which is what’s already happened to House of Cards?

Even before the fifth season landed this morning, Netflix had already commissioned a sixth and seventh. Even for a prison drama, that’s a long stretch.

Orange is the New Black season 5 is now available on Netflix.

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