Why Orange Is The New Black Is Better Without A Lead Character

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The animals, the animals, trapped, trapped, trapped, ’till the cage is full …

I’ve just finished episode 5 of Orange Is The New Black’s Season 4 and wanted to share some spoiler free impressions so far.  What OITNB consistently does well is balance the drama with the comedy. The writers can push story lines to near absurdity and silliness, then reel us back down to earth for heavier, dramatic pay offs. I never feel claustrophobic in the Litchfield correctional facility setting partly because the character centric flashbacks each episode take us to another time and place. On top of that, moments of joy and hilarity offset how tense and terrible things can get in prison. The refreshingly funny dialogue is on point and combined with a stellar cast nailing the line delivery, it’s hard not to get caught up in the inmates lives and what’ll happen next.

On a broader level, OITNB is set up and well-suited to be a long-running series unlike, for example, a serialized crime drama like Breaking Bad which is centered on a cancer-stricken protagonist where his progression ran it’s inevitable course over five amazing seasons.  OITNB doesn’t need to up the ante over the previous year in terms of a game changing event nor come up with a new big bad villain. What it does do is carry over existing story lines from one season to the next and naturally evolve the characters based on their experiences. Any of the cast members can be the lead for any given episode. The show can go on and thrive without Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), Season 1’s primary viewpoint. Further, new inmates and guards are introduced to keep things from getting stale. 

The number of new inmates this season are more than a real life reflection on the state of over-crowded prisons in America. It’s a plot device that opens up possibilities for what the show does well which is it’s laser focused social commentary. Visible minorities, particularly women of color, are under-represented on television and film. As much diversity as OITNB depicts, the writers are self-aware that there are still segments of the inmate population such as the elderly women which don’t get as much screen time. With the influx of new Spanish-speaking inmates, the writers are recognizing that they can’t lump all latinas into one homogeneous group. Like in real life, latinas have national identities like the Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. The back half of Season 4 is likely a further exploration of the racial tension and divide between the inmates. 

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One of my favorite characters is Poussey Washington and a reason why I especially loved her scenes in Episode 3’s “(Don’t) Say Anything” is how it distilled what I think OITNB is essentially about. Because she’s black and she’s in prison, we may think we know her story. But assumptions can make an ass of anyone or in this case her new girlfriend, so it’s important for Poussey to tell her own story, to have her individual, unique voice be heard.

At the same time, there are hints that Poussey is not exactly who she says she is or if it’s even her real name. What I also appreciate is that when she becomes all giddy in the presence of the Martha Stewart-like Ms. King, played to perfection by actress Blair Brown, it’s an endearing, funny trait but not a defining one. She has many more aspects going on which makes her feel like a well-rounded character. Perhaps that’s why I’m not warming up to Piper Chapman recently because after so much character development over the previous seasons, she’s pretty much reduced to an one-dimensional character. However, the ending to Episode 5 could be where Piper’s story line will pick up.

Orange Is The New Black’s game plan all along is to tell the many different stories from women of diverse backgrounds. It’s never meant to be solely Piper Chapman’s story, though her initial viewpoint is a conduit for viewers to get hooked on the show and the many characters revolving around the Litchfield penitentiary. Maybe not all of the characters are working, some are borderline caricatures but overall Season 4 so far is thoroughly entertaining and demonstrates there’s a lot more compelling stories to tell. Shanks for the memories!

Are you interested in watching Orange is the New Black? Who are your favorite characters and what do you think about Season 4?

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