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by Alison Willmore
August 20, 2013 2:35 PM
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How 'Orange is the New Black' Became One of the Year's Best Shows By Turning a Fish-Out-of-Water Tale on Its Head

'Orange is the New Black' Jessica Miglio/Netflix

Netflix doesn't release numbers, so there's no way for an outsider to officially gauge how its original series have done so far, but in "Orange is the New Black" the streaming service indisputably has its first homegrown cultural phenomenon. The prison comedic drama hasn't just managed to attract glowing critical acclaim, it's become the type of series that launches both internet memes and serious discussions about prison reform.

It's without a doubt one of the year's best new shows, and one of the keys to its excellence has been the way it turns expectations about storytelling inside out from its very beginning, when Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) speaks about her love of getting clean as we cut to her shivering in the lukewarm spray of the Litchfield showers. The premise of a white, boho Brooklynite ending up incarcerated suggests the show is going to be about the character's personal journey through 15 months behind bars, her tough time going from organic groceries to working in the electrical shop, and that, like so many fish-out-of-water tales, it'll be one in which the newcomer will become the most important figure in her new environment.

But we quickly see that Piper isn't the hackneyed white savior figure one might predict from that set-up. Over the course of the 13-episode first season, she doesn't save a damn thing, her occasional triumphs really only ones of fixing problems she's caused in her oblivious newness, from apologizing for slighting Red (Kate Mulgrew) about her food to making amends to Janae (Vicky Jeudy) for indirectly getting her thrown in the SHU.

More importantly, she's the character with which we enter the world of the prison, but she's not the fixed point of view through which we see it. Whole plot threads, including Daya's (Dascha Polanco) romance with guard John Bennett (Matt McGorry) and Red's power struggle with Pornstache (Pablo Schreiber), unfold beyond her awareness, and the flashbacks, which are doled out from episode two onward to other characters as well as to Piper, provide a continual reminder of the histories and backstories of the inmates, ones that Piper rarely has a sense of.

"Orange is the New Black" showrunner Jenji Kohan described Piper as "a gateway drug," adding "I don't think I could have sold a show about black and Latina and old women in prison, you know?" It's a sadly pragmatic statement -- "Fetching Brooklyn blonde goes to jail" is the stuff of a logline, "Women are incarcerated due to reasons related to endemic poverty along with poor decisions" is reality, and far less pitch-session friendly. But Piper isn't just a narrative tool -- she's a fully formed, fantastically flawed character, and the series uses her limited point of view not just as a critique of the privilege she's never really come to grips with enjoying but as a comment on the privilege of the act of storytelling and who gets to do it.

"Orange is the New Black" may be the only show in television existence to make a pivotal dramatic moment of characters listening to NPR, as Piper's fiance Larry (Jason Biggs), working with the borrowed interestingness bestowed on him by having a significant other in jail, goes on a "This American Life" stand-in to recount tales Piper has passed along to him about her fellow Litchfield inmates.

It's a great scene, as Piper listens, horrified, while Larry shares with everyone her sometimes unflattering initial descriptions of characters like Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) and Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst), who she's since had earnest exchanges with that have revealed them to be far more than just an unstable joke or a frightening suspected murderer.

Larry makes her story into one about him, flattens the complex women she's been spending so much time with into anecdotes, and it's enraging to her. She and her experiences are turned into fodder. At the same time, the radio story has power -- it brings attention to possible embezzling (or at least overpaying) being done by administrator Natalie Figueroa (Alysia Reiner), and it gives Piper the leverage to get a marriage request form signed when Sam Healy (Michael J. Harney) wouldn't have otherwise done it for reasons entirely personal.

"Orange is the New Black" is itself based on a memoir by Piper Kerman, who's active in the prison reform movement, but who's also a white New Yorker who's been on NPR and The Moth and who demographically falls closer to listeners of the real "This American Life" than to the average prisoner.

Women like the ones portrayed in the show, like Miss Claudette and Crazy Eyes, Taystee (Danielle Brooks) and Red (Kate Mulgrew), they don't tend to get TV shows made about them, or to publish books or New York Times columns about their experiences and what they've learned. And there's an admirable gutsiness to the show's willingness to acknowledge that built-in imbalance that's also part of its own makeup, and to push its own protagonist to be left feeling the powerlessness of being made a character in someone else's story.

"Orange is the New Black" is bursting with stories -- with Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox) and her transformation from fireman to transwoman convict, with Tricia Miller (Madeline Brewer) and her hopeless running tab with the world, with Daya and her mother Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriguez) and their dysfunctionally competitive relationship. But it leaves these histories messy, not easily summed up -- we don't often see what it was that actually put these women in prison, and there are no lessons to be landed. Some of them got screwed over, some of them earned their way behind bars, and either way these glimpses of their pasts are for us -- not something Piper gets to be party to or to learn from (because you don't ask why someone's in prison).

If there is a moral to "Orange is the New Black," it's a difficult one, a recognition of the many ways in which people have and use power, from the guards and officers and how they can abuse their places to who gets to go off and give their perspective on air. Prison is a temporary leveler, though the series makes it plain how difficult getting clear of it can be to anyone who doesn't have help on the outside. And stripped of a lot of the power Piper didn't fully realize she had by simply being born a pretty, middle-class WASP, she realizes the story she's been telling herself about how she's a nice person isn't all that straightforward either.

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11 Comments

  • tex | August 22, 2013 2:27 PMReply

    Have not and probably will not read Piper K's book. I did, however, totally watch Orange is the New Black on Netflix (classic FOMO). I struggle with anything that makes prison look or feel palatable. I feel like (if I was a woman of course) I could hang out in that dorm. Eat the crap food. Pull fast ones on Mendez. Trade jabs with Pennsatucky. Get head in the chapel. Eat my Cup o' Noodles without spilling on Mrs. Claudette's blanket. Make Thanksgiving gravy with Red. Be not nearly mad enough at Alex. Fall in love with John Bennett. Throw a pie for Crazy Eyes, errr Suzanne. And end my days in Shavasana, with Yoga Jones.

    The problem is that is not what prison looks like. Even for white ladies, but especially for society’s nameless and faceless incarcerated masses. It's not cute, it's not fun and it's not funny. I should be outraged by Taystee's recidivism; instead of happy like a friend just returned from vacation (I was the latter, if that's not obvious). I should be sickened by John Bennet's inappropriate, imbalanced and illegal sexual relationship with Dayanara Diaz; not rooting for their love. I should be sickened by Piper's critical beat-down of Pennsatucky; not rooting for her and feeling proud of her.

    So I've concluded that for me this show can't be about prison, incarceration, social justice, sexuality, or any real issue, because it's sooooooo not real. It is entertaining. It's WILDLY entertaining. The characters in real time and as presented in their back stories are very well done. Jenji Cohen knows how to make the implausible entertaining. We know this because we spent eight years watching a suburban widow outsmart the FBI, DEA, CIA, George Bush, Gibbs from NCIS, and every drug cartel from Western PA, to Medellin...she was that good.

    So too is OITNB. The implausible made plausible: Having good times in prison. Not 'hard time'. Times filled with laughter. Like the times Jerry, Elaine, and Krammer had eating cereal in Jerry's apartment, watching Rochelle Rochelle (A young girl's strange, erotic journey from Milan to Minsk).

    It's fine. OITNB is a television show. We never expected Jerry's apartment to make a profound statement about apartment living (though it may have, unintentionally). It was a setting. It was a place for fictitious stories, of fictitious characters, to play out for the viewing audience. This is what the role, in my estimation, of the prison is in OITNB.

    Jenji is smart enough to not let us get bogged down on rape trails, race warfare, and human enslavement. Prison is a terrible place. It makes people who weren't that terrible, terrible. It's reeks of spiritual death. It darkens souls. You may encounter a Taystee like character doing the cabbage patch dance [google is your friend, people], but it's likely to be after she stabbed you for phone time. So next time I'm watching (and I will definitely rejoin my new lady friends for another season of urine gravy and t.v. titties) I'll just picture them all sitting at Monk's Café instead of Litchfield's Prison Caféteria.

  • Katie | August 21, 2013 9:57 AMReply

    Way to totally ignore one of the important stories of season one! Alex and Piper anybody?

  • DianaPatty | August 21, 2013 9:16 AMReply

    Wonder if rumors about Laura Prepon (Alex) not returning to OITNB for second season, had anything to do with, estrayegically leaving her out of this article. Since she happens to be a major character on the plot.

  • Valtier | August 21, 2013 1:58 AMReply

    Guess Healy wrote the article and forgot to mention Alex

  • Claus | August 20, 2013 11:24 PMReply

    Did you blatantly ignore the lesbian aspects of this because you didn't see it or because?..... It's important, not too mainstream and vanilla as you try to make this article but still a key feature. So much for "indie"

  • angela | August 20, 2013 6:17 PMReply

    Did you skip all the Alex scenes? How can she be ignored in this article? The Piper and Alex relationship is one of the biggest conflicts of the series. Alex is the reason why Piper went to prison in the first place. Weird.

  • Darren | August 22, 2013 9:52 AM

    Well maybe because it's not all the important to the broader concept of the show. Although that story was essential to the drama of the main character, this article does a good job of not focusing on the somewhat distracting love triangle that was necessary to keep the attention of the general audience. I would've been fine if the show didn't have love drama and it was focused on the theme of inequality of the prison system and the sociocultural ramifications of the running a system this way. The conversation between Taystee and Pousin was the best moment in the whole series IMO, plus the article to be written about the misplacement of prison funds and the flashbacks of the other prisoners. That speaks to the story Jenji wanted to tell but couldn't sell.

  • WhenIWantTo | August 20, 2013 6:12 PMReply

    Did you miss the tall, dark-haired woman in glasses? If so you missed some wonderful, complex scenes.

  • maddy | August 20, 2013 6:03 PMReply

    Wow. I can't believe this article managed to ignore one of the most major developments in series: the fact that Piper has to do her time in jail with her ex-girlfriend Alex. It's one of the core relationships of the show and, in addition to giving exposure to women of color, this show shows issues in sexuality as well.

  • TAY | August 20, 2013 5:44 PMReply

    I love this show is is amazing and Taylor Schilling is the best actress out there today, she sets the screen on fire and I love all of her interactions with the different cast members.

  • Bela | August 20, 2013 4:08 PMReply

    I liked this series a lot, It made me missed Weeds, early Weeds, so much... It has this dark humor which is the most I miss about Weeds. I hope Jenji knows when to unplugg the cord and dont keep it on life support