By Simon Miraudo
July 30, 2014
Every sentence is a story, Orange is the New Black‘s tagline punnily promises, and it ain’t lying. Jenji Kohan’s spunky black comedy concerns the highs and lows (okay… mostly lows) of the populace in a female prison seen through the eyes of Taylor Schilling‘s Piper Chapman, a waspy, artisanal soap-maker way out of her element, serving a short sting for smuggling drugs once upon a time.
This being a – sadly – rare instance of a TV show having a largely female, multicultural cast, OITNB smartly begins to shine a light on its gargantuan ensemble as the episodes pass, flashing back to each inmate’s pre-prison life. Thank goodness. Though Piper – based on real-life ex-con and author Piper Kerman – is plenty entertaining, we’re happy to see her take a backseat to some of the more complicated characters marking time at Litchfield Penitentiary; particularly ones with nicknames like ‘Crazy Eyes’ and ‘Yoga Jones’.
Orange is the New Black‘s first season is one of the strongest comedy debuts in recent memory, managing to build to an astounding dramatic crescendo whilst still providing laughter and pathos in equal measure. Never before has a rogue chicken and a missing screwdriver inspired such comedic gold and sweat-inducing panic, respectively. Its second season, somehow, is a step up, expanding its empathetic reach to everyone in Litchfield, no matter how intimidating, and that includes (heaven forfend) the guards. Sometimes this show does miraculous things. Even Born-Again Pennsatucky would have to admit that.
OITNB is up for Outstanding Comedy Series at the 66th Primetime Emmy Awards later this month, with an astounding five of its stars competing for their own statuettes. With Season 1 now available to stream on Quickflix and Season 2 rolling out over the next few weeks, I decided to share my ten favourite characters.
10. Carrie ‘Big Boo’ Black
Played by comedian Lea DeLaria, Big Boo has a cutting sense of humour, but that doesn’t make her any less terrifying, especially when she’s threatening her prison wife. But there’s a sweetness underneath; one that comes to the fore once she’s united with a therapy dog, christened ‘Little Boo’. (That is, until things between them “get weird.”)
9. Sister Jane Ingalls
A rebellious firebrand, activist, would-be celebrity and “bad nun,” Sister Jane (Beth Fowler) offers sage advice at Litchfield. Just don’t call her the Pope’s b****. “I like to think of myself as the Pope’s homie.”
8. Gloria Mendoza
Selenis Leyva‘s Gloria is the matriarch of the Spanish crew with a smirk for every occasion. I’d love to get into what makes her great, but that would spoil too much. All I’ll say is that her storyline intersects with that of…
7. Galina ‘Red’ Reznikov
…Kate Mulgrew‘s Head Chef, an irascible Russian with a shock of red hair, ties to the Mafia, and the ability to smuggle in all sorts of contraband. You need lip gloss, you see Red. Mulgrew’s up for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for her part here, though seeing how she moves closer to the center of the story as the show progresses, you might find her – deservingly – up for Lead Actress alongside Schilling in the coming years.
6. Sophia Burset
Laverne Cox is the first openly transgender person to ever be nominated for an acting Emmy, thanks to her performance as Sophia Burset (whose flashback ep in S1, Lesbian Request Denied, might be the best thing the program’s ever pulled off). Resident beautician, the rest of the girls wish they were as well coiffed as Sophia. Me too, frankly.
5. Tasha ‘Taystee’ Jefferson & Poussey Washington
I hate to combine two rich characters like besties Taystee and Poussey, but I figure they’d be happy to share a space, if their sister act of ‘Amanda and McKenzie’ is any indication. Danielle Brooks and Samira Wiley, you’ll get your nominations soon enough.
Australia’s own Yael Stone plays the perpetually-wedding-planning Lorna Morello. I say that up front to partly explain her bizarre, beautifully off-kilter accent, which perfectly hints at the something not quite right beneath her surface. Stone’s heartfelt, compassionate turn here might be the saddest of all.
3. Nicky Nichols
Natasha Lyonne came back with a vengeance in Orange is the New Black, starring as the sarcastic Nicky Nichols, the most eminently quotable, sexually voracious inmate of them all (collecting, you guessed it, an Emmy nom for her troubles). A recovering drug addict, she trades heroin for in-prison conquests. And she’s doing just fine.
2. Tiffany ‘Pennsatucky’ Doggett
Every good show needs its villain, and OITNB gets a big one in the miniscule Taryn Manning, nearly unrecognisable as former meth addict and devoted-to-the-point-of-insanity Christian Pennsatucky Doggett. That we alternately find her adorable and despicable – especially as more and more terrible things from her past emerge – is proof positive Manning’s performance is mighty impressive stuff. Honest to God. Who could have imagined this from the former lead singer of Boomkat?
1. Suzanne ‘Crazy Eyes’ Warren
Our final Emmy nominee – and perhaps only lock for a win – is Uzo Aduba, playing Suzanne Warren, the inmate affectionately nicknamed “Crazy Eyes” for reasons that hopefully don’t need explaining. A manic, energetic force of nature with a lot of love to give – especially to Piper – Aduba (and the show around her) slowly reveals Suzanne’s deeper layers, proving she might be the sweetest, most dangerous person in all of Litchfield. I’m certain I’m not alone in saying she’s earned the top spot.