A REVIEW BY
In Orange is the New Black, Piper Chapman (a fictionalized version of memoirist Piper Kerman) goes to prison for a crime she committed a decade prior to the beginning of the series. In the years between her crime and her conviction, Piper had brought order to her formerly chaotic life (her only connection to the crime she committed being the woman she was dating at the time). Early on in the series, she plans to ride out her prison sentence to return to her life exactly as she had left it. In going to prison, she had to leave behind her Brooklyn brownstone, fiancé, and artisanal soap business that was “going to be in Barneys!” But her time in prison (and the time the viewer spends watching the show) makes it clear that it’s impossible for her to return to the life she led before her sentence.
In the first scene of the series, set in the prison shower, we encounter Piper as she sheepishly accepts compliments about her “white girl titties” from Taystee, an inmate who has spent her entire life in the system. The nudity and aggressive tone of Taystee’s comments make for a jarring introduction to the show; it’s uncomfortable to watch. In a parallel scene around the end of the season Taystee’s comment that Piper “got a little blood on her titty” is totally natural and, in fact, friendly. The blood is a plot point, but the two scenes are staged exactly the same way. The parallelism conveys how Piper’s (and the viewer’s) relationship to Taystee has changed dramatically. At the beginning of the series, Taystee represented “a prisoner”—she was just an intimidating woman harassing Piper in the shower, but by the end of the series she is a warm, funny, and comforting presence. The evolution in the way we experience her character reflects the strength and appeal of the series: It is a show that strives to change the viewer’s understanding of prison and the people in it, and it succeeds.
Like Lost, each episode features a supporting character and expands upon her background through dramatic flashbacks interspersed throughout the main narrative. These flashbacks are not just sequences of events that describe how the character ended up in prison; rather, they present scenes that, in some way, speak to why a character is the way she is. The third episode, “Lesbian Request Denied,” features Sophia Burset, a male-to-female transgender woman who used stolen credit cards to pay for her genital reconstruction surgery. The show’s treatment of her reflects its ability to present fully-rendered, realistic characters. The episode only fleetingly portrays Sophia’s arrest. It instead flashes back to Sophia as a malebodied firefighter beginning hormonal therapy, her first experience trying on a dress with the love and support of her wife (who painfully implores Sophia not to reconstruct her penis), an awkward encounter in a shoe store with her son, and, eventually, her arrest, as witnessed by her son. The show does not opine that the crime she committed should be excused. Sophia is a selfish, single-minded woman who stole a huge amount of money and cannot immediately understand how her actions affect others. The viewer is asked not to forgive but to understand— to relate and to acknowledge the total personhood of a woman in prison. That’s why this show is valuable.
In one scene, a rookie correctional officer who used to work as a bagger at a Whole Foods that Piper frequented recognizes her. The officer amiably jabs at her for frequently forgetting to bring reusable bags to the store. Their conversation is casual and friendly, and this surprises the viewer due to the naturally tense relationship between prisoners and the correctional officers. The officer then says, “I just want you to know, that as far as I’m concerned, you and me are the same. The only difference between us is, when I made bad decisions in life, I didn’t get caught.” By the end of the thirteen hour-long episodes, I do not doubt that any given viewer would come to feel the same way, yet the show never really descends into proselytizing this viewpoint. In presenting these women and conveying the different shades of who they are and how they came to be in prison, it becomes clear that most prisoners are not monsters or automatons intent on doing harm (some may be, but that’s another discussion), but most are just people who have committed crimes. People! Individuals with worlds as complex and relationships as deep as anybody else. They have broken the law, and they have hurt others, and one can judge them however harshly one wants to, but you can’t forget that they are people. That matters. That’s all.
I haven’t yet mentioned that the show is also hilarious. It’s never fun to read why things are funny, so I won’t write why things are funny, but take my word for it! You’ll laugh out loud. If you watch every episode and do not laugh aloud once, you can slap me with a copy of this article in the pasta line at Val. But only in the pasta line.
And there is so much more to this show. It explores race, sexuality, how to run a prison kitchen, marriage, the destructiveness of insecurity, the way that we redefine ourselves based on how we want to be perceived (“I missed this old Piper temper!” “I don’t have a temper anymore—now I have a passion for justice.”), and much more. Though what I wrote here is a lot of heavy-feely stuff, it’s what I think is most important about the show. The complexity of each individual exists beneath layers and layers of other compelling plots, jokes, and characters. I want you to watch the show. Watch it! And talk to me about it! I will literally always be DTT (Down To Talk).