The rise of online streaming services such as Netflix and Lovefilm have had an unforeseen change in how television works. Aside from simply providing people with a large range of films and TV-shows to watch on-demand, the companies are now producing TV shows of their own.
Netflix have had three such shows launch in the last year: the reboot of one of the best comedies America has produced, Arrested Development; the US adaption of the British political drama House of Cards and most recently, the prison drama/comedy Orange is the New Black.
Arrested Development, whilst returning to somewhat mixed reviews, was still an excellent thing to have back on our screens, having lost none of its quirky and offbeat charm and humour with the only negative words to be said for the way the series acted almost entirely as an update to what has happened to the family in the seven years it has been gone. House of Cards received almost universal praise, with Kevin Spacey playing the Machiavellian anti-hero, playing the game of politics on it’s most intense stage in Washington D.C. (apologies to Bangor City Council) with such powerful, charming darkness that it’s impossible to not root for him.
The latest arrival has been Orange is the New Black, a darkly funny show, based on the real-life experiences of a woman convicted of drug trafficking. This show seemingly has it all – humour, lesbians, intrigue, violence, lesbians, sex, lesbian sex and tension. The lesbian card is, frankly, played rather a lot in the show, though it doesn’t suffer for it. It is interesting to note that the only sexually active lesbians are the thin, pretty women, and it can make you wonder whether or not this was more of a decision based on what will make people watch, than an accurate reflection of prison life in the most obese nation on earth.
The shows exploration of how life can change because of a single mistake in the long distant past both makes you feel for the characters, and at the same time start to feel a slight itch. Put people into a terrible situation, and you will often see the worst. The lead character, for instance, is a charming if ditzy liberal New Yorker, who seemingly cares and wants to make life better for her fellow inmates, yet is also a scheming, emotionally-blackmailing narcissist. The fiance, played by Jason Biggs of American Pie fame, further reflects this, as do many of the other characters.
For all the moments that this show makes you start to itch with distaste at the actions of the characters, it has moments of real warmth and love. A prisoner is released, bringing the whole, often fractured, community together to see her off. Another prisoner, who has long been institutionalised, receives a letter from an old love and hope blossoms for her. We see the whole range of emotions brought to a simmering point before exploding in a climactic series finale, leaving us wishing for more.
This show is many things, and impossible to pigeonhole neatly. It is funny, dark, touching. It is a warning on the foolishness of prison systems that seek only to control people and a stark education on the realities of race in America. It’s also silly, with some moments of surrealness that are desperately needed, and yet no more unbelievable than those surreal moments that happen in our lives. Ultimately, it is a good story, a tale that could be told in a huge range of settings, and that is what the best television is. The Sopranos wasn’t a show about gangsters, it was about guilt and family and morality; Fawlty Towers wasn’t about hotels, it was about desperation and snobbishness. Orange is the New Black isn’t about prisons, it is about us.