The year’s best television series have so far emerged from some very unlikely places, whether it’s the searing Sundance Channel drama Rectify, BBC America’s upcoming gut-wrenching murder mystery Broadchurch, or Netflix’s superlative prison drama Orange Is the New Black, from Weeds creator, Jenji Kohan. (That two of these shows deal with issues of crime and punishment — and specifically imprisonment — is not surprising, given our societal preoccupations at the moment, though these weighty issues are handled extremely differently within Rectify and Orange.)
Orange Is the New Black, released by the streaming platform under its now standard pattern that incentivizes binge watching, is the first Netflix show that truly warrants such obsessive speed viewing. The important choice you have to make is whether you want to burn through the 13-episode first season in a weekend (comedian Patton Oswalt said of the show, “Now I know how mid-70’s NYC heroin addicts felt.”) or space them out over a few weeks. But regardless of which viewing method you employ, what is certain is that you will fall under the spell of Orange fast and hard. It’s the type of television show that comes around rarely these days, one that exerts an almost gravitational pull on the viewer, so authentic and funny and poignant and tragic that it’s impossible to look away from the screen. Or, indeed, to forget about the well-drawn characters — carefully and exquisitely crafted from different races and ages — that exist within the drab walls of this run-down prison environment.
The reaction to Orange Is the New Black — based on the memoir by Piper Kerman — has been intense, from among both viewers and critics. But its place of origin is not the thing that is most surprising about the show. Orange, after all, is a show that features a primarily female cast — made up of mostly unknown actors, with a few exceptions — and an unlikely protagonist in Taylor Schilling’s Piper Chapman. She is often selfish and unlikable, but she provides an entry to a world that (I hope) few of its viewers will ever see: inside a New York women’s prison.
Prison in this case is a microcosm for the outside world, a place of tribes and alliances, of enmity and secret assignations. It is a world of extreme harshness and yet also of unexpected beauty, where a small act of kindness can seem like an enormous thing. Piper, the sort of naïve hipster who makes artisanal bath products for a living and who loves to tell anyone who will listen that her products are carried in Barney’s, is instantly out of her depth. She’s a newcomer to an incredibly rigid system that doesn’t allow for pushback and which, in an almost Victorian sense, rewards those who know their place in the machinery. That Piper — who once carried a suitcase full of drug money for her then-girlfriend, Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) — has voluntarily surrendered, choosing to relinquish her freedom, makes her initially an object of curiosity and of scorn among her prisonmates .
Leaving behind the life she knows, Piper discovers in prison just what it means to be caged, but she quickly learns that the true threat in prison isn’t just your fellow prisoners, but yourself. It’s this fact that gives Orange its true heft: the notion that confinement forces a person to see her innate flaws, her mistakes, and her real self. This epiphany comes in a later episode when Piper meets an at-risk teenager visiting the prison as part of a “scared straight” program and actually unburdens her own psyche in the process. It’s a beautifully realized moment that careens from comedy to pathos, as Piper’s words sink in: The true threat to her isn’t a knifing in the shower or a lesbian rape, but the solitude, the endlessness of her time in lockup, and the soul-crushing routine of the everyday. The Piper at the very end of the season is virtually unrecognizable from the Piper we meet at the start, her naïveté (she initially treats going to prison more or less like a new adventure) brutally stripped away by her contact with the very realness of her new existence.
That new existence forces Piper to come to terms with her own preconceptions and animosities, putting her face-to-face with the woman who sent her away, her former lover, Alex, and sitting alongside people with whom she never would have consorted in her old life. Strangely, it’s prison that also seems to liberate her from her ingrained way of thinking, with her old ways of living.
The women that Piper encounters inside have their own contradictions and backstories, which are smartly teased out in flashbacks that reveal their lives before committing the crimes that landed them inside Litchfield’s minimum-security federal penitentiary. The innate complexities of these women — from prison cook Red (Kate Mulgrew, who is so steely and intense that the scenery seems like it will burst into flames every time she walks onscreen) and Piper’s severe cellmate Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst), to snaggletoothed Bible-thumper Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett (Taryn Manning), and ex-junkie Nikki (Natasha Lyonne) — provides more than enough grist for the show’s story engine, one that will hopefully last for years.
These characters resonate so strongly because of the level of commitment to reality that the actors bring to the roles. Each of these women is a virtual matryoshka, each layer concealing an infinity of others. Lyonne, in particular, deserves special praise for her brave and bravura performance, as does transgender actress Laverne Cox, who portrays the struggle of trans prisoner/hairstylist Sophia Burset — who committed credit card fraud in order to become a woman — with immense dignity and grit, never shying away from the complications of her situation with her son and her wife.
Moments like Sophia’s, presented both in terms of flashback and in heartfelt conversations in prison, are where Orange truly shines, capturing a reality that tests the viewers’ own preconceptions about female criminals and women in general. Suzanne (Uzo Aduba, a breakout here), aka “Crazy Eyes,” who hopes that Piper will become her prison “wife,” is filled with more layers than a cronut; she pees on Piper’s cell floor out of anger, but then can recite Shakespearean dialogue at whim. The show hasn’t shown her full backstory yet, but viewers are given a small glimpse of her parents, an elderly white couple she calls “Mommy and Daddy.” As the season progresses, she transitions from comic relief to become a tragic character in her own right. And that goes for most of the prisoners as well: Their stories of rage, heartbreak, and love push the show into unexpected areas.
That includes a smart and sophisticated handling of racial issues, which deserves commendation. (And should be expected after Kohan’s tenure on Weeds, which also featured a number of various people of color.) While the prison is clearly a segregated place — Piper is placed in “the ghetto” with the African-American prisoners to the horror of the white prisoners — Orange wisely focuses on each of these racial groups, giving them appropriate depth and distinction. In turn, the show both gently mocks the way that these groups break off (there’s even a group called “Golden Girls/Others,” a catchall that includes both the elderly and the few Asians in the mix) and revels in their individual sense of identity in small but meaningful ways. These explorations go beyond Taystee and her friends demanding hot sauce in the cafeteria or the Secret Santa gift-giving performed by the white inmates, instead opting to explore the way in which identity is as powerful a commodity in prison as a stick of chewing gum or a pair of shower flip-flops. As one inmate reminds Piper, this isn’t bigotry, but tribalism. Belonging to a particular crowd, it seems, isn’t limited to high school.
Schilling and Prepon are sensational as star-crossed lovers Piper and Alex, whose sense of attraction and hatred for one another is fused together into something jagged and barbed. Their unfolding relationship is brutal and beautiful, as are several others that flare up and die out over the course of the season. The sisterhood that is discovered here, divided down strict tribal lines, is explored in terrific and riveting detail, whether it be the strained romance between Piper and Alex, the enduring friendship between high-flying Taystee (Danielle Brooks) and her confidante, Poussey (Samira Wiley), or the splintering bonds between Nikki and cherry-lipped prison driver Morello (Yael Stone).
A prison seems an unlikely place to explore both the nuance of female dynamics as well as the seemingly eternal wellspring of feminine strength. But that’s part of Orange’s unlikely charm: The surprises that are embedded within the narrative mirror the viewer’s own experience in encountering different and often contradictory aspects of these characters. Those who at first appear to be good or bad will often commit acts that are contrary to what appears to be their nature. (That rubric applies to Piper as well.) Characters that you should hate become objects of admiration and even love. (While love isn’t a word I’d apply to Pablo Schreiber’s sadistic prison guard, George “Pornstache” Mendez, even he displays an unexpected soft side.) Likewise, characters who initially appear sympathetic exhibit streaks of cruelty or selfishness that is shocking and heartbreaking to watch.
The season ends with a brutal cliff-hanger, which I won’t spoil here, but it confirms Piper’s realization in the end. Prison does force one’s true nature to emerge; ultimately, she surprises herself by what depths she’s willing to travel to in order to survive, a psychological underworld that is so far away from the trappings of privilege with which she grew up. That sense of revelation is an integral part of why Orange Is the New Black is quite so mesmerizing and electrically charged. This show seemed to come out of nowhere and its very unlikeliness is what keeps us craving more. For a show that deals with the pressures of addiction and criminality, it is only fitting that Orange should cast out such an intoxicating, palpable lure.