Okay, I caught on late. Really late. But better late than never, I guess. So here I am binge-watching the television series that had everyone hook, line and sinker in early 2014.
Thankfully though, despite everything that was spoken, written or even said about the show I had little idea about what kind of show it really was. All I knew was that it had Laura Prepon playing an inmate, and that the show was set in prison. I wasn’t sure if it was funny, serious, what era it was set in, or anything else. I started to watch it on Netflix last week, quite by accident. I actually meant to begin watching Parks And Recreation, when I realised it isn’t available on Indian Netflix as yet (yeah, woohoo reduced/controlled content!) so I made do with watching OITNB. But I was hooked from the word go. At first it was just the girl-centric focus that got me, because I’m a sucker for girl stories. Much like I loved everything from Golden Girls and Gilmore Girls (what little I’ve seen of it) to SATC, Girls and now OITNB. But this show takes the girl-centric focus to a new level, by putting a bunch of powerful, colourful, characters in a tight box (literally, prison), and allowing their individual personalities emerge. The setting — prison — presumably chosen to enforce physical boundaries, is rendered pretty pointless, as you see how the individual personalities emerge despite the boundaries. And sometimes because of them. The restrictions created by prison dictate how the characters deal with situations, but also bring out the girl-centric aspects of the story out with so much nuance, because of the sheer absence of men in the main plot lines. The only male characters are the cops, and the various men in the backstories of the characters which are revealed in every episide. Aside from that it’s a girl power show, through and through. With the main characters filling the roles of mothers, sisters, friends, enemies, and lovers — and being there for each other as best as they can — within the walls of prison.
The context of prison, as limiting as it is, is actually what sparks many a personality to take flight in ways they probably wouldn’t have outside of prison, leading normal lives. Ironic. I’m only about 8 episodes in and I keep wondering when this structure and setting is going to pose a challenge, or get old. But it hasn’t so far.
The plot is a riveting telling of Piper Chapman’s time spent in prison, and the experiences, trials and tribulations she faces during serving her time for being involved in a drug scandal with her ex-lesbian partner from many years before. I’m a sucker for stories like this, that unravel slowly, are stark — equal parts hartwarming and horrifying, and OITNB with all its girly-girl-ness is right up my alley. It presents all manners of permutations and combinations of relationships shared amongst and between women, the diverse back stories, the conversations and situations the women find themselves in, and how they deal with them, each in their own way. While a lot of it is explicitly stated, so much is left unsaid and leaves you reeling and caught up with thought about their pain, suffering, highs and lows, long after the episode has ended.
Through the individual tales of every inmate, the show also sheds light on the several issues based on racism, class and white privilege and displays the obvious gaps in the penal and corrections systems that are always overlooked that invariably lead to obscene abuse of power. However, I wish these issues could have been brought to light without pandering to the most obvious stereotypes like portraying black women to be uniformly aggressive and uncouth; or Latina women to seem like they only ever have sex on their minds; the over-sexed, mustachio’d Mendez.
I’m hooked enough to ignore these prolem areas, and I will probably watch it through to the end, but those of you who have watched it already —are the stereotype deliberate devices? Does it lead somewhere? Does it get better? What did the show make you feel?