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.