By Amirah Zaveri
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While I much enjoy adventurous bike rides, relaxing poolside and exploring the outdoors during these precious summer months, sometimes, I just want to be an indoor hermit. As I prepare to plop down on the couch for several hours, I gather a multitude of snacks, a comfy pillow and turn on some good ol’ Netflix.
My go-to show this summer is unquestionably Orange is the New Black. A Netflix original series created by Jenji Kohan and freshly nominated for 12 Emmy awards, it’s wildly different from anything on TV. Centering on the lives of women serving their sentence in a women’s federal prison in Litchfield, New York, the show is so intriguing and unique that I couldn’t stop watching after the first couple of episodes.
Surviving prison life is a feat in itself. The brutal reality of having to strip and squat for a rectal exam to uncover drugs, being starved out by the prison cook or dealing with the possibility of being stabbed by an enraged, lunatic prisoner are common occurrences at Litchfield.
Orange is the New Black is brilliant because it’s realistic. Kohan not only showcases the emotions and struggles each inmate faces on a daily basis, but provides glimpses into their life before prison. Many of these women have experienced severe abuse, poverty, and the disastrous effects of drug addiction. Learning of these obstacles and inner battles expose the humanity behind the orange prison uniform.
This show definitely doesn’t leave anything unexposed. Literally. The plethora of nudity can be a bit much for some viewers. The fact that it’s an all women’s prison means sexual desperation for many inmates; scenes of erotic intimidation, flirting and sex are far too common. On the rare occasion, there are some heterosexual relationships within the prison, but for the most part inmates are shown having sex in the shower, utility closets, and even the prison chapel.
The first season mainly focuses on Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) – a young, blonde woman from an affluent family whose one-time transcontinental lesbian fling with a drug smuggler after college landed her 15 months inside federal prison. Coming into prison, she is pensive, shy and overwhelmed by the change in lifestyle and interactions with other prisoners, in which she – the debutante white girl – clearly does not fit into.
The second season, I believe, is more interesting because it delves deeper into the background and personality of several prisoners at Litchfield. Also, while I appreciate first-season Piper, occasionally her character can be overly whiny and a bit lackluster compared to the storylines of other prisoners. In the second season, her character blooms to be increasingly resilient and realistic of who she actually is.
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A favored character of mine is the outspoken and confident transgender, Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox). Previously a male firefighter, Burset risked her married life as a heterosexual man and father to a growing teenage boy to transform into her true identity as a woman. As the prison hairstylist, she embraces her self-reliant and sassy personality, and always seems to stay positive despite whatever is pulling her down. More so, she’s intelligent, knows how to survive in prison and is always a stable rock in the storm.
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Another surprising favorite is the role the prison staff plays in the show. I expected the guards and administration to have monotonous personalities and be the background rule enforcers. Yet, Kohan creates each personnel of the prison to have a distinguishable personality. George Mendez (Pablo Schreiber), known as Pornstache by prisoners, is a sadistic prison guard that seems to enjoy his low-paying job a little too much. Tormenting prisoners with rabid barks and catcalls, bringing in drugs to sell for his own profit and abusing the power he has is an everyday routine for Pornstache. This recklessness and lack of moral virtue further blurs the line between criminal and law enforcement.
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Never before has a show with almost an entirely female cast so seamlessly captured the inner workings of a prison and the assorted individual lives of each inmate. In a single episode you will laugh, get teary-eyed, be incredibly disgusted or horrified and learn something new about prison. All in all, Orange is the New Black is a breakout hit and a major television triumph for Netflix. Take a week off, barricade yourself in and spend some quality time with the women of Litchfield Correctional.
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