On July 11, Netflix released all thirteen episodes of the first season of Orange Is the New Black, their latest foray into original television programming. And it’s been almost universally hailed as really, really good. If you haven’t already stolen your parents’ Netflix password to binge-watch this show, cancel your weekend plans and curl up with your laptop. Based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of her stint in a minimum-security prison and brought to your screen by Jenji Kohan (the creator of Weeds), Orange Is the New Black tells the story of what happens when the self-proclaimed “nice blonde lady” goes to jail. Sort of.
Piper Chapman (played by Taylor Schilling) is the ostensible protagonist of Orange Is the New Black. When we meet Piper, she’s firmly ensconced in her position as a WASPy, liberal arts graduate living in New York City with her cute, writer-type fiancé. Their life together is marked by the kind of privilege afforded to well-educated, creative professionals with wealthy parents. If the story stopped there, we’d be following a well-worn formula for successful television. The experiences of characters like Piper and Larry are often at the center of our cultural narratives, and it certainly wouldn’t be unusual to see a television show about the tribulations and triumphs of young, pretty, white people navigating life post-college and pre-marriage.
But Orange Is the New Black isn’t exactly that show, because it turns out that perfect Piper has a past – years ago, she transported drug money for her girlfriend, a member of an international drug cartel. When Piper is named in the indictment against the cartel, she pleads out for a fifteen-month sentence at a minimum-security facility in Litchfield, New York. And that’s where our story begins.
As Piper stumbles through this new world, the show is at turns viciously funny and touchingly empathetic. Orange Is the New Black is quality television, brought to us by Kohan and her particular gift for delivering weird, off-kilter narratives. You should be at least check out the pilot on Netflix, but I’m not here to convince you to watch Orange Is the New Black, partially because Emily Nussbaum has already done a damn good job of that. Instead, I want to take a moment to set aside the hype surrounding the show, much of which centers around its frank, complex treatment of queer women and their relationships – although I admit that the hype is what originally caught my interest.
Orange Is the New Black is worth your time because it’s good – great, even, for audiences starved for more diversity in television – but it’s also worth watching because it foregrounds societal issues of systematic inequity. When I first started watching Orange Is the New Black, I realized that I had never seen so many women on screen before, let women of different ages, gender presentations, racial and ethnic identities, sexual orientations, socioeconomic positions, and nationalities. While the show’s representation of these diverse populations often treads perilously close to the stereotypical, it’s rarely reductive. There is nuance to these depictions of people who are rarely featured in television narratives.
These narratives are mediated through Piper’s experience of Litchfield and her fellow inmates, and so Orange Is the New Black is certainly not removed from the problematic centering of the white experience. But the characters of Orange Is the New Black do not exist solely to serve Piper’s narrative arc; while we meet these people through Piper, they exist autonomously to her, with their own experiences and histories. The structure of Orange Is the New Black is key here. Our early impressions of Piper’s fellow inmates largely rely on the shallow, stereotyped assessments conveyed by Piper herself, but as the show progresses, we begin to see the bigger picture. Each episode focuses on a different character, featuring short flashbacks to their pre-incarceration life. These stories are almost always more compelling than Piper’s own narrative, which appears increasingly shallow in comparison. These are tragic stories, largely of people who were forcibly compelled into the prison industrial complex by circumstances beyond their control, by systematic inequities. We get flashes of the ways in which their futures after prison will be shaped by those same forces.
This is Orange Is the New Black’s subtle way of critiquing the prison system’s efficacy. The portrayal of the prison staff – an essentially universally negative depiction that maintains a multi-dimensional characterization – furthers this critique. This is television and it’s meant to entertain, but as you chuckle at the show’s bawdy humor and appreciate its diverse representation of female characters, you’re learning a lesson about inequality in America. Some critics have derided Orange Is the New Black for not going far enough with this critique, but I think they’re missing the point.
As the season progresses, Piper and Larry (and, to a lesser extent, the other members of her support network) become less and less sympathetic as characters. I found myself gritting my teeth through their scenes, eager to get back to the more compelling, more complex narratives of the other inmates. But without that contrast, I imagine that many of Netflix’s viewers – those with the disposable income and time to binge-watch television – wouldn’t fully appreciate the lesson of Orange Is the New Black. I’m not sure that I would, as someone who has much more in common with Piper than with the other characters of the show. That juxtaposition is crucial.
I was most captivated by the notion of choice, a constant refrain throughout the show. Piper phrases her entry into prison as a product of choice – she believes that she, like the other inmates at Litchfield, made a bad choice and now she is paying the price for that mistake. At first, we as viewers are willing to buy that. In fact, it even seems impressive, how committed Piper is to turning her stay at Litchfield into a learning experience. But the notion of choice is also directly linked to the concept of agency, and we quickly learn that access to agency – to the ability to self-determine your path – is largely limited to Piper. The rhetoric Piper and her family use to contextualize her incarceration portrays these events as a fluke, a technicality of the law. Over and over again, it is emphasized that Piper “self-surrendered” to the prison, that she forwent her right to trial and chose to atone for her crime. She chose to make incarceration a positive experience.
That choice isn’t available to the other inmates at Litchfield, for whom the field of options is decidedly narrower. And once you realize that, you begin to see the fundamental critique levied by Orange Is the New Black. It’s not a perfect show, and it often falters as it tries to grapple with the big issues. But for a television show, it’s made a pretty good start, and I’m already anticipating its second season.
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