Saturday, June 7, 2014

Summer TV Rewind: Orange is the New Black 1.01: "I Wasn't Ready"

“Try to look at your experience here as a mandala, Chapman. Work hard to make something as meaningful and beautiful as you can. And when you’re done, pack it in and know it was all temporary.”
-Yoga Jones

This summer, as season 2 has just been released, we’re going to be taking a look at the first season of Netflix’s hit original drama “Orange is the New Black.” I’ve been pretty heavily involved in corrections policy (although primarily on the juvenile side)for the past two years, so I find the show an interesting watch from both a drama perspective and a look at the state of our correctional system. What is especially unique about “Orange is the New Black” is the large cast of diverse female characters. Each inmate the show follows at the Litchfield, Connecticut federal correctional facility is a fully-formed character with her own backstory and motivations. We go on a journey with Piper Chapman, who at first seems like a typical Brooklyn hipster, as she begins her fifteen-month sentence. At first, it feels like Piper doesn’t belong at Litchfield and many of the other inmates do, but as the season progresses, many of the inmates become more sympathetic than Piper herself. Piper is really not the innocent person she first appears to be (even to herself), and she has to come to terms with that.

The opening of the pilot episode is a prison shower scene designed to shock, but thankfully this episode is the first and only time that the show really goes to this place. It’s as if the creative team was saying, “Now that we’ve shown you some naked women so we can be taken seriously, can we get down to the real business of the show?” The idea that a drama needs to include nudity to be taken seriously is a whole other can of worms, really. I think it comes from the HBO-ificiation of drama. But again, that’s a subject for another time. For the record, I dislike violence in media even more than nudity/sex, and obviously the nudity in “Orange is the New Black” didn’t keep me from devouring each episode and enjoying the show enough to want to write about it here. I just think it’s an interesting trend. Anyway, the shower scene takes place on Piper’s first morning in prison, and we see just how little she’s fitting in at this point. Girl’s got shower shoes made out of pads, and she’s freaked out by everyone who tries to talk to her.

Throughout the episode, we get some flashbacks to give us the basics of how Piper ended up in prison. This story will become more layered as the season progresses, but it’s interesting to see Piper’s perspective on her personal responsibility for her situation in the early days. Right after college, Piper was a free spirit who had a relationship with a woman who just happened to run an international drug smuggling ring. That woman’s name was Alex Voss, and she’s played by Laura Prepon, best known for “That 70’s Show.” Alex is going overseas for a while, and she convinces Piper to join her, promising that Piper won’t have to participate in any actual criminal activity. Soon enough, though, Piper is agreeing to pick up some cash from an airport in Belgium. There’s a bit of tension when the money bag doesn’t show up right away, but soon enough, Piper is picking up the bag and blowing right through customs.

About ten years after Piper and Alex’s adventures, Alex has been arrested, and in the course of the prosecution of the case against her, she gives the feds Piper’s name as a fellow member of the drug ring. The now stereotypical WASP hipster has her world completely turned upside down. First she has to let her boyfriend, Larry (Jason Biggs) know what’s going on, which means revealing her super-sketchy past. Even more fun is Piper and Larry having to tell Larry’s family. Larry’s dad is a lawyer, and they hope he can help get Piper out of this (obviously he’s not completely successful). What’s funny is that Larry’s grandmother doesn’t have nearly as much of a problem with it as they thought she would. Larry goes into full “stand by your woman” mode, and during a day at the beach, he proposes to Piper. She accepts, of course, because she’s totally committed to this image she has created for herself of the good girl who was at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The present-day parts of the episode focus mainly on the absurdity of federal prison bureaucracy and Piper’s ill-fated attempts to adjust to prison life. Piper does a self-surrender, and right from the outset, there are bureaucratic snags. First there’s the fact that she’s surrendering on a weekend. That means that support staff needed to find and process all her information are minimal. Then Larry has to walk Piper’s phone out to the car (she’s not technically allowed to have it in the facility) and almost misses seeing her off. Finally, her commissary check has to be mailed off to an office in the Midwest for processing. That last one is why she eventually ends up with the MacGyvered shower shoes. Her commissary money hadn’t gone through yet. She also has to cry to one of the really skeevy counselors to get use of his phone to call Larry.

Piper has read extensively about how to get through prison, but there are some things she is most definitely not prepared for. First, there’s the segregation. Caucasians, African Americans, and Latinas generally stick to their own kind. Keeping with this, the first fellow inmates that Piper really converses with are all white. There’s Morello, the blue collar chick who likes to wear pin up makeup and hair while she talks about her upcoming wedding. There’s Nikki, a tough, readhead lesbian. There’s Yoga Jones, who runs the facility yoga class. And there’s Red (Kate Mulgrew), a Russian immigrant who runs the kitchen. Piper has a very unfortunate run-in with Red. Red does culinary favors for her favorite fellow inmates, and on this particular morning, she gives people at the table where Piper is sitting yogurts. Red feels sorry for Piper, Piper being a newbie and all, so she gives Piper a yogurt, too. Piper thanks Red for the yogurt because the food is disgusting. She obviously didn’t realize Red cooked the food. Nikki and Yoga Jones warn Piper that insulting Red’s food was a seriously dumb move. Piper realizes just how bad it’s going to be when her next meal is an English muffin…with a used tampon inside.

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