Opinion: Green Is The New Orange Is The New Black
It's back to Litchfield we go. The fourth season of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black returns but we’ll take a look at the prison drama that’s its spiritual precursor: HBO’s Oz.
BY WAYNE CHEONG | Jun 28, 2016 | Film & TV
Prison isn’t a traipse in a park. It is a crooked road lined with razors, a period of rehabilitation, a box where you serve out your penance. First screened in 1997, HBO’s first ever hour-long drama, Oz, and it was set in the fourth level of Oswald State Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison. The series took the public’s stock perception of being behind bars and amplified it. For one, it puts the American penal justice system under a microscope. Inmates were guilty and were serving out his (or her as the series has its only female in the form of Shirley Bellinger played by Kathryn Erbe) respective sentences, that even when housed in an experimental unit for rehabilitation, the inmates, more often than not, will revert to base instincts for survival. If they have to go through hell then they might as well carve out a little kingdom of their own.
The series hosted had a multi-ethnic stellar cast. From Oscar-winner, JK Simmons (who played the white supremacist, Vernon Schillinger) to BD Wong (Father Mukada) to Harold Perrineau (Augustus Hill), many who went on to have longevity in their own acting career.
Oz is also a boiling cauldron of ethnicities and beliefs. If civility is the dangled carrot at the end of a prison sentence, the stick the inmates wield is used to protect one’s tribe and way of life. Aryans versus the Muslims, the Italians versus the Irish; the lines mapped out. To be an island is suicide. Alliances must be made. There’s also the frank view of sexuality. While the Schillinger’s weapon of choice is rape, there are genuine relationships grown from the yawning loneliness like that of Tobias Beecher (played by Lee Tergesen) and Chris Keller (Christopher Meloni). It was real, heartfelt and in Oz, it’s a flower growing through the cracked sidewalk. Looking back, Oz is a little unpolished in its execution given its trailblazing Greek tragedy styling; its template will give rise to shows like The Wire and The Sopranos.
The end of the series had most of its population succumb to exposure to Anthrax. Only a few characters survived. Then, again, throughout the series, people, both protagonists and villains, die. It’s a fact of life and more startlingly so in a dog-eat-dog world of the Emerald City.
Fast forward to now; a new prison-themed show from Netflix is causing a riot. Orange is the New Black, Netflix’s critical dramedy series based on the memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman. This time set in Litchfield Penitentiary, a minimum-security women’s federal prison, the series also has a multiethnic cast, deals with race, sexuality and gender issues. Jenji Kohan, creator of OITNB and Weeds, once said that “… Piper [played by Taylor Schilling] was my Trojan Horse. You're not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals. But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories. But it's a hard sell to just go in and try to sell those stories initially.”
Kohan’s ruse and direction challenge the perception of female inmates. It gave us access into its characters’ history and we empathise with their situations. Sophia Burset (played by Laverne Cox) shows us the tough decision of identity and responsibility or the taciturn Chang (played by Lori Tan Chinn) who had to prove herself in a patriacal world. You won’t find much violence in OITNB, instead you find a commune of women trying to mark out their days in a cage. They find humour in their situation, humanity even. Unlike Oz, there looks like a light at the end of the tunnel and you’ll want them all to get to the end.
The fourth season of Orange is the New Black is now available at Netflix.com.