One of the true classics of the prison genre flick is the 1947 Jules Dassin noir Brute Force. The movie helped establish many of the archetypes and motifs (and, yes, clichés) that we’ve seen in so many of the prison movies of the subsequent sixty-seven years. Like Orange Is the New Black, Brute Force introduced us to a prison community and then, via flashback, showed us the choices which led specific inmates to their present incarceration.
Great as it is, I bring up Brute Force to point out one of its weaknesses. In telling us the back stories of its characters, it cheats a little. None of the inmates it looks at are really gangsters or hoodlums or bad guys. They all seemed to have been swell fellas before some twist of fate landed them inside.
If Orange Is the New Black hasn’t made the same mistake, it’s probably because the show’s mastermind, Jenji Kohan, doesn’t seem to believe in swell fellas. You can see this in her previous series, Weeds, where pretty much every character was deeply, irredeemably, flawed. This isn’t to suggest that the characters on Orange aren’t lovable or funny or capable of kindness. Many of them—maybe even most of them—are. But they all have their flaws. Some, like Janae, are in jail because they made a profound mistake. Others, like Morello, are in jail because of some deep-seated, unaddressed problem.
[But we haven't met a bonafide criminal yet, until now...]