Last month, the cover of the venerable American magazine TIME featured a first in its 91-year history; a transgendered cover star. Actress and activist Laverne Cox struck a graceful pose in a blue dress and black heels, while the cover line heralded ‘The Transgender Tipping Point’. How did Cox achieve such prominence? Her role in a little show called Orange is The New Black might have had something to do with it.
Today the eagerly anticipated second series of this truly original Netflix Original will be made available to watch online. It became a sleeper hit when it launched last summer and now ranks alongside those other acknowledged greats of TV’s current ‘Golden Age’. Unlike House of Cards, Breaking Bad or True Detective, however, Orange is The New Black is not another story of a white, male anti-hero who steps outside the confines of social norms for the vicarious pleasure of a (presumed) white, male audience.
Show creator Jenji Kohan based her series on the memoir of real-life Piper Kerman (played in the show by Taylor Schilling), a white, middle-class, attractive and - initially, at least - heterosexual woman who ends up in prison because of a drugs offence she committed some years previous. It’s a fish-out-of-water device we’ve seen a thousand times before on TV, in shows where a Piper-like lead character is flanked by a few token minority actors, usually in comedic, or plot-furthering roles.
What OITNB does differently is simple; it bestows on all its characters the same depth, complexity and detailed back-story that is usually reserved for the lead. Thus, the show utilises a large, diverse cast to embrace issues of race, gender identity, sexism, income inequality, mental health and plenty else besides. Add to this the fact that it includes more interesting roles for women than all the other quality US TV dramas combined, and you have some television really worth getting excited about.
As Piper comes to realise she’s not in fact the only prisoner with an interior life and a complicated past, so does the viewer. Background characters who stepped into the limelight last season included illegal immigrant Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst), Russian mobster Red (Kate Mulgrew) and Cox’s character Sophia, a trans woman denied healthcare by the prison guards. This season promises to focus in on several more.
Orange is The New Black is great entertainment, but it’s also an elegant rebuke to those who grumbling resist on-screen diversity. They worry it will somehow stifle creativity, when in fact quite the opposite is true. As Cox told TIME: “There’s not just one trans story,” and the same is true of every other oft-stereotyped group on television. Here, then, is the stockpile of original, untold stories drama commissioners always claim they’re crying out for - and it was right underneath their noses all along.
War and romance with Raworth
In this year of the First World War centenary, there’s another important historical moment to mark - the 70th anniversary of D-Day. This year’s series of Great British Menu concludes this evening with a banquet for veterans and the history of the day is explored in more detail by Normandy ’44 on BBC Two at 9.30pm. More romantic souls should be sure to catch If I Don’t Come Home: Letters from D-Day on ITV Player, a look at letters written by four servicemen to their families back home.
It’s the first-hand accounts which are most to be treasured, however, and remarkably, seventy years on, there are still living participants with stories to share. For that see, The Heroes Remember on BBC iPlayer, Sophie Raworth’s stirring series of interviews with veterans of that day in in June, 1944.
My Last Summer, 4oD
Considering death is a common experience to us all, it’s surprising how rarely the subject is tackled honestly on television. Or is it? People as brave and candid as the five terminally ill participants of this new documentary series can’t be common. My Last Summer brings them together for regular weekends in the Cotswolds and no topic is out of bounds. “It would make a better television programme if one of us died,” commented 57-year-old Ben.
Dinner at 11, 4oD
Like Come Dine With Me crossed with 7 Up, Dinner at 11 filmed a group of strangers as they dined together and discussed the issues of the day. The twist? All participants were still at primary school. The surprising topics of conversation included Nelson Mandela, progressive taxation and online grooming - “You go there and there’s a 60-year-old man waiting with a tranquiliser dart”, summarised Peter, helpfully. Can they really be just 11?
Happy Valley, BBC iPlayer
Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley has been one of the best-written but most emotionally draining drama series in recent years, so its Tuesday night conclusion came as something of a relief. In Sergeant Catherine Cawood, Sarah Lancashire has given us a character to root for through all manner of misery. Would it be too masochistic to hope for a second series?
Big Brother: Power Trip Live Launch, Demand 5
Does anyone still watch Big Brother? Yep, plenty of people, in fact, according to Channel 5’s ratings for the last series of CBB. The non-celeb version which started this week will have to work harder to keep our attention, but the early signs suggest Emma Willis et al are up to the challenge.