The old punk in 'Orange is the New Black'
Having finished binge-watching Season Two of Orange is the New Black, I have three brief, non-spoiler alert observations—two as an amateur TV critic, and one in my usual role as observateur de la roche.
1. Early in my career, as a reporter in New Jersey, I did a series of investigative stories on the abysmal conditions at the Hudson County Jail. Things there actually were much, much worse than anything the series has shown at the fictional Litchfield Prison in Upstate New York, or even during Piper Chapman’s brief stay in Chicago. But based on those observations and dozens of interviews back in the day, and granting the inhumanity of a prison system that remains an international disgrace, many more inmates were like this season’s lethal super-villain Vee Parker than Piper or any of the other increasingly lovable crew of misfits around her. The show really needs to guard against becoming Friends Behind Bars.
2. Piper Kerman’s book is a great read, and highly recommended to any fan of the show. Some of this season’s deviations from the story that inspired the show were very well done and in keeping with the unsparingly harsh but purposely non-sensational tone of her memoir. But other plot twists verge toward clichéd soap-opera territory, and show runner Jenji Kohan really needs to watch that, too.
3. Finally, while it nagged at me all through Season One, I finally made the connection midway through these 13 new episodes that, yes, the Annie Golden playing Norma Romano, the mute sidekick of Kate Mulgrew’s “Red” Reznikov, is in fact the Annie Golden of the Shirts—the other female-fronted band after Blondie during the original explosion of punk in the mid-’70s. (And shame on me for not confirming it after Norma/Golden’s surprising vocal debut at the end of last season.)
A favorite of C.B.G.B. owner Hilly Kristal, who, contrary to that awful recent movie, never really understood the best bands he showcased on the Bowery, the Shirts definitely were in the second tier of the groundbreaking bands in that era. Their best moment was their self-titled 1978 debut, released on Harvest in the U.K. after they were signed by Nick Mobbs (the same man who signed Wire) and produced by Mike Thorne (the same guy who produced those brilliant art-punks). The closest they got to a hit was “Hang Up the Phone” in 1984, which showcased a much poppier, more pandering New Wave sound. I prefer the early garage grit.
With cult status (at best) as a rocker, Golden always supplemented her income by acting—she appeared in Miloš Forman’s 1979 film version of Hair—and she eventually became a familiar presence on Broadway. (She played Squeaky Fromme in Stephen Sondheim’s 1990 musical Assassins—not his best moment. Maybe that’s what landed her in prison.) Still, seeing her in Orange is the New Black is a surprise.
It’s a small world, eh? Not as small as Litchfield, but still…