On ‘OITNB,’ women are the new men

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OITNBby Brian Clarey

There are many reasons to watch “Orange is the New Black.”

For one, it’s on Netflix, which means that entire seasons get dumped all at once. For television junkies, this is the equivalent of coming across a crack rock the size of a tennis ball.

It’s also great TV, created by Jenji Kohan who set her increasingly surreal Showtime drama “Weeds” against the suburban marijuana trade and cast UNCSA grad Mary-Louise Parker as the widowed soccer mom who does what she needs to do to get by.

And “OITNB” is set in a women’s prison. Who doesn’t want to get a glimpse inside that?

Behind the dazzling scripts and some wholly original plotlines, it’s possible to overlook that the concept itself is derivative — the role Taylor Schilling’s Piper Chapman could have been written for Parker’s Nancy Botwin had the plot of “Weeds” taken a different turn. And “Oz,” the disturbing HBO prison drama is a direct ancestor. “OITNB” is ostensibly a comedy, so it also owes a debt to “Hogan’s Heroes,” the first TV comedy about life behind bars.

But perhaps most impressive thing is that “OITNB” is the first thing I’ve seen this year, with the possible exception of an anime film made for children, that passes the Bechdel Test.

The Bechdel test, Dad, is a measure imposed by comic artist Alison Bechdel, applied to any work of fiction, be it film or book or TV show. And the test is this: Does the story feature a scene where two women, both of whom have names, are talking to each other about something other than a man.

In Litchfield Women’s Prison, where “OITNB” is set, that’s almost all we get. They talk about their families. They talk about their bodies. They talk about cigarettes and beauty products and raw sewage spewing from the shower drain.

In one gender-twisting plotline, the junkie-philosopher Nicky and bull dyke Big Boo engage in a contest of sexual conquest with the inmates and guards as prey. Their tête-à-tête in the cafeteria rivals any bit of sexist dialogue ever put out there by the chauvinist Hollywood machine.

Another thread is almost Shakespearean in its scope: Inmate Taystee is confronted with her former mentor Vee, who once ran things in Litchfield and aspires to reclaim her position through forbidden smokes hidden in tampon applicators. To take the throne, she’ll have to unseat Gloria, who took over the prestigious kitchen gig last season by overthrowing the Russian phoenix Red, who has some buried animosity against Vee from years ago.

Red has her own caper going: a pipeline to her greenhouse through which her own line of contraband is smuggled.

Season 2 of the show dropped over the weekend. I’m 10 episodes into the 13-episode season, but most diehards I know finished the entire run before brunch on Sunday morning. I hope to knock out the last few episodes before the weekend. And then I’ll probably watch both seasons again during the summer TV drought.

I watch because I’m a fan of Kohan’s, and because “OITNB” may be the best show of its kind. Right now, it may be the only show if its kind, with so many Bechdel moments I lost count halfway through the first episode, when the women in the prison yard were discussing how to stay warm like arctic penguins, with nary a feller in sight.

Fine by me. Women are infinitely more interesting than men, don’t you think?