How Orange is the New Black raised the bar behind bars

Orange is the New Black has one of the most diverse casts on TV. Showcase

The new season of Netflix hit Orange is the New Black has a lot to live up to. The exhilarating mix of comedy and drama set in a women’s prison was the first of Netflix’s original series to exhalt diversity in its cast and storylines, and has proven to be one of the streaming service’s most successful shows.

Now in its fifth series, OiTNB, as it is often referred to, offers a very different vision of US society to what has previously appeared on our screens. The cast features Latina, Asian, and black women, as well as white supremacists, and liberal white women, all of whom have fallen on hard times. The show demonstrates that a focus on marginalised communities can have broad appeal, and offers a vision of US society at odds with Hollywood whitewashing.

Since it first appeared in 2013, OiTNB has highlighted key social issues, including transgender rights, inter-ethnic conflicts, queer identities, mental illness and drug addiction. Each has been treated in such a way that the episodes are never didactic or dull. The show is compelling and tragicomic, exploring extraordinary depths of character, transcending the ethnic, sexual and class divides that separate incarcerated women from audiences on the outside.

From inmates to ‘in-mates’

OiTNB is not the first attempt at a prison drama that has tried to transcend genres. HBO, the channel that instigated a golden age in television, went first with Oz in 1997. However, this was exclusively testosterone-fueled, and diversity was always its main source of conflict. Oz caught the attention of the predominantly male audience of HBO subscribers, who came for sporting events and soft-porn, and stayed for The Sopranos and The Wire. But Netflix and its global remit had the opportunity to appeal to a markedly different, much broader audience with OiTNB.

Series one of OiTNB followed the true-life tale of Piper (Taylor Schilling), the WASP (white anglo-saxon protestant) heroine as she was inducted into prison life. Her troubled relationships with both boyfriend Larry (Jason Biggs) on the outside, and drug dealer girlfriend Alex (Laura Prepon) on the inside, formed the drama, while the comedy came from her whitebait, out-of-water interactions with fellow inmates.

This was a deliberate strategy by showrunner Jenji Kohan. As was the subversion of Piper’s efforts to rise above the squalor of prison life by the surge of empathetic intimacy, as she and the audience got to know the other female prisoners.

As its audience and fanbase grew, season two saw Piper sidelined as sensitive writing and choral performances drew audiences into caring about the other, narratively marginalised characters. It was only when white male lead Larry disappeared – pursued by public hatred of the character – and the toning down of Piper by the most diverse and dynamic cast on television, that the series revealed its voice and purpose.

The next two series saw the original narrative arc collapse. Episodes bloomed around clusters of great character actors with whom audiences were delighted to do time – but tensions were always building in the prison. Resentment at the adverse effects on the prisoners of privatisation culminates in a season five riot that played out over 72 hours, and 13 episodes.

In effect, however, the takeover of Litchfield by the inmates happened long ago. The white male guards are just foils for what really matters – the multitude of female leads – in this reversal of classical storytelling.

Challenges of diversification

Unlike other shows, viewers gain an unusually profound understanding of characters in OiTNB. Their backstories create understanding and empathy, while the long-form series allows for their development. Uzo Aduba’s character evolved from the mentally ill “Crazy Eyes”, who stalked Piper and claimed her as her wife, to the wide-eyed and hopeful Suzanne. Aduba made history by winning Emmys in both the comedy (2014) and drama (2015) categories for her performance.

Another televisual first courtesy of OiTNB was the casting of transgender actor Laverne Cox as Sophia, a transgender woman jailed at Litchfield Penitentiary. Sophia gives a voice to real transgender inmates who experience the cruelty of the US prison system. Her portrayal of their struggles for rights, hormone therapy, dignity and self-realisation, led to the actress becoming a campaigner and spokesperson for transgender rights.

The myriad storylines show how OiTNB has widened the gaze of television audiences to embrace a fascinatingly diverse range of protagonists. The show began as a challenge to risk-averse producers, and four seasons down the line it shows no signs of pulling any punches.

Season five promises to be another intense ride as the characters become empowered and take control of Litchfield. Having raised the bar for representations of diversity – as well as long-form quality television and the audience reach of streaming services – this dramedy behind bars has proven itself a most deserving breakout success.