Ensemble shows "Orphan Black" and "Orange is the New Black" enter their second seasons this summer, just in time for those lazy days when you think, “Wow, all this time but nothing to do! Where is the next gripping, female-centered thriller to sustain me for the next eight hours of perfect sunshine and soothing breezes?”
"OITNB," set in Danbury Prison, chronicles the struggles of female prisoners, switching between their lives in prison and flashbacks that tell their background stories. Even though it occasionally veers into soap opera territory (but you have to have some escapism, right?), it’s grimly realistic about inequalities in the U.S. prison system. It also reflects the race and class privilege that allowed the real-life protagonist of "Orange is the New Black" to write a best-selling memoir about female bonding and solidarity behind bars.
Though "Orphan Black," a sci-fi thriller about the survivors of a human cloning experiment, seems converse in genre and tone, its characters’ struggles center likewise on autonomy, identity and freedom. They’re exactly the opposite of the fluffy, funny sitcoms I usually devour ("Parks and Recreation" and "New Girl," to illustrate the extent), but I love both for the tension and complexity created by their claustrophobia.
Also, the best part: both "Orphan" and "OINTB" overachieve on the Bechdel Test, an important marker for female representation in media. To pass this test, two named female characters must have a conversation about something other than a man—simple enough, but so far only nine films have passed in 2014.
"Orphan Black," BBC Canada’s newest addition to the line of intelligent, maddeningly addictive sci-fi shows that make you scan fan boards for hours after each episode, starts with a huge, heart-pounding twist: Sarah Manning, a scam artist back in her hometown after years away, witnesses a woman jump in front of an oncoming train. And the kicker? The woman looks exactly like her. And even though you, the viewer, are probably screaming in your seat, Orphan Black isn’t; in a feat of opportunism, Sarah steals the woman’s identity to pull of a quick, easy heist.
Afterwards, she discovers (rather reluctantly, as she just wants to take the cash and go) that she’s a clone, one of several different women living wildly different lives: teacher, stay-at-home mom, scientist and serial killer. Through skillful editing, but due in most part to Tatiana Maslany’s incredible ability to morph into every character, from tightly-wound Allison to whip smart Cosima, "Orphan Black" focuses on identity. However, it does this not in a typical, find-your-roots-and-everything’s-perfect way, but rather through each character's’ determination to continue the life she created for herself
Its dystopian elements become more otherworldly and menacing in contrast to show’s gray, generic, somewhere-in-Canada backdrop, yet still remain within the realms of plausibility. "Orphan Black"'s standard sci-fi combination of a multinational corporation, the DYAD group and shadowy cult, the Proletheans, aren’t bent on world domination, but rather on strictly controlling the clones, a small enough subset for their imprisonment to not be a huge deal. We’re not talking about disaster, since no one’s particularly worried about the media or even the ethical implications of artificial life, or lauding the clones as saviors of humanity. "Orphan" focuses on how its characters deal with their imprisonment, rather the imprisonment itself. And truthfully, if you were poised between learning about your roots or escaping a menacing laboratory with extremely sharp needles, which would you choose?
Orphan Black’s sci-fi elements are not revelations of humanity’s doom (coming right at you via mutant virus, rogue asteroid or zombie apocalypse!) but rather of creeping challenges to self-determination. Each clone alternately resists or subjects herself to her creators in order to live life with some degree of bodily autonomy—and in particular, to live with reproductive freedom as women and mothers, whether biological or adoptive. Allison signs her rights over to the DYAD group to protect her children; Helena struggles for control of her unborn child and most of all Sarah, whose love for her daughter supersedes her curiosity over her origins, strives to protect Kira against the DYAD group’s experimentation.
While all its characters fight back , they aren’t cold-blooded killing machines (or, in the words of Hollywood, “strong female characters”) but rather people responding in the only way possible to save their family, friends and selves. It’s the kind of realism I can support, especially when it’s contrasted with the tone of a gloriously creepy thriller and enough plot twists to satisfy any sci-fi fan.
Orange is the New Black
Until its last episode, "Orange is the New Black" steadily crept towards romanticizing prison, following its huge, diverse cast of characters. Yet at the very end, as Piper’s antagonism towards Pennsautucky showed that, for the time being, harsh reality superseded the fun of "Orange"'s clever writing and fantastically engaging characters. For me, this discomfort stems from the huge online fandom of "OINTB," (which, to be completely honest, I scan for spoilers) that sometimes glosses over the show’s portrayal of inequality, privilege, and injustice. When reading about OITNB, there’s an uncomfortable dichotomy between love for these characters—all of whom deserve it for bringing creator Jenji Kohen’s marvelous vision to life—and apathy for their real-life counterparts. It’s prison as pop culture, complete with gifs and a Buzzfeed quiz on “Which OITNB character are you?” with the question “What would you get sent to prison for?”
Answers range from “being too fierce” to “being too fabulous.”
Yet in its second season, "OITNB" precludes this tendency; it’s not as meme-able (though memorable lines include Pennsatuckey’s “It’s a metaphor, you potato with eyes!”) but gives a wider view of Litchfield for all its inmates. Instead of delving further into Piper’s back story, already intensively covered in Season 1, "Orange" begins with episodes devoted to previously secondary characters and focuses on power struggles within the prison. By silencing Piper in favor of bringing other inmates’ narratives to life, Litchfield, and the prison system itself, becomes the pivot around which every character turns; no longer simply about contrasting Piper with the other inmates, a narrative that gives her way too much airtime, Season 2 proposes new characters for the role of protagonist.
Poussey, Orange’s most reliable source of wisecracks, plays a major role, given an emotionally wrenching back story and a potential romance. Through it all, she’s still wonderfully quotable, even in German (all will be revealed once you watch Episode 5). At the same time, we learn more about Suzanne’s life before prison. At the end, both narratives intersect in a brutal, unexpected way. And though Pornstache and Pennsatuckey return, "OITNB" introduces Vee, Taystee’s foster mother, as the primary antagonist—albeit one with a Machiavellian intelligence that far surpasses anything of which the Season 1 villains could conceive.
Both of these Bechdel-approved series offer an insightful look at the lives of women and their issues, which, shockingly, don't hinge on the lives of men.