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Monday, 9 June 2014

Orange is the new Black: What's all the fuzz about?


Friday, 6th June saw the eagerly anticipated release of the second series of Orange is the New Black on Netflix. This imaginative, bold and innovative series took the streaming service and the world of - well, we can't really call it television drama, can we? Or can we? - by storm. The first series was one of the international viewing highlights of 2013, not only in terms of sheer pleasure but also when we consider what the series means for the audience experience and the industry as a whole. A Netflix Original series, based on a true story and steered by creator/writer/executive producer Jenji Kohan (previous works include Weeds), Orange is the New Black is extraordinary for almost too many reasons to list – although I'm obviously going to try.

Firstly, it heralds the dawn of a new way of making drama that directly draws upon the changes to how audiences consume content. Subscribers to Netflix are essentially stakeholders in the show's production and, as a result, they get exclusive rights to watch the series before the eventual DVD release. The series is available in full from the outset, meaning that some of you reading this may have finished the whole thing already (shush, now). The audience can watch however much they want, whenever they feel like viewing. It feels like the industry is finally catching up with what viewers have wanted for years; it has just taken them a little longer than us to realise that new devices and a reluctance to conform to traditional scheduling do not equate to a reluctance to see great stories on screen, whatever form that screen may take. If anything, the advances in technology have encouraged a very real demand to engage with stories in more ways than ever before.

Of course, just making something readily available doesn't guarantee it will be a hit. What makes Orange is the New Black (and its sister programme of a sort, House of Cards) so significant, is that it is actually very, very good. To put it mildly. Key to this success is the diversity of characters, coupled with knock-out performances from the show's ensemble cast and the pithy, surprising scripts offered by Kohan and her team of writers. The plethora of well-drawn and conflicted female inhabitants of Litchfield Prison offers us a sight that is shamefully rarely seen in major dramas, whilst the range of different ethnicities and sexualities, not just represented but fully explored and embraced, is like a breath of fresh, story-telling air. One of the great episodes of the first season for example, focused on the struggle of a transsexual fire fighter whose desire to become her true self led to her incarceration and the fracturing of her family.

During the first season, we followed Piper Chapman as she was jailed for a crime she had committed in her youth, convicted just shy of the statute of limitations deadline. A waspish figure, the audience were sucked into the unfamiliar world of lock downs, orange jumpsuits and sanitary towel flip flops with her. While that might have been a good enough story in and of itself, the real strength and quality of Orange is the New Black can be found in the inmates she meets, befriends and clashes with as it becomes clear that, deep down, Piper isn't quite the person she has been pretending to be. The ensemble quickly ingrain themselves with the audience and, as we learn their stories through flashbacks, we come to care about them and hope for them in a way that is honest, without any saccharine manipulation. They are who they are, and we love them for it.

So: what will the second series have to offer? Well, I suppose that question is a little moot now it is available to watch in its entirety. Perhaps the one downside to being able to binge the whole series is that you can rob yourself of that anticipation, of wishing the week away so you can find out what happens next. Unless you exercise some self-restraint - but who's got the energy for that? Given the unexpected end to the first series, we are going to be seeing a lot of fall out from Piper's transformation from uncertain fiancée protesting her innocence to someone who has been slapped in the face with her own hypocrisy and selfishness but who, importantly, still has the sympathies of her audience...more or less.


But don't expect this show of diversity and colour (even down to the title) to rest on its laurels. The opening of the second series immediately takes us and Piper out of the 'comfort zone' of Litchfield and away from the characters we're so desperate to see. It is a jolting move that at once upsets everything we might have been expecting but also opens up a wealth of new possibilities. With Piper held in a different prison pending the trial of a former associate, we meet new and unfamiliar characters who we hope we get the opportunity to know better. As Piper makes another  mistake and finds herself in a troubling position that might just help to prolong her sentence (we kind of hope so, although the series could stand on its own if she was released), the second episode dispenses of the show's lead character altogether, allowing the audience a joyful reunion with her former cell mates.

And joyful is the word to use to describe the return of this show: big hitting, warm-hearted, genuinely funny and touching in equal measure, whether you hole up for thirteen hours straight with snacks at arms reach and watch the series in one fell swoop or whether you mete out your enjoyment in episodic portions, one thing is for sure: you'll be eagerly awaiting Season 3.

Contributed by Jane Harrison 

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