ColumnMy love affair with Netflix’s new series “Orange Is the New Black”
“Orange Is the New Black,” released on Netflix last week, is “Weeds” meets the “L-Word” meets a less violent “Oz“, and I love it. As many of you know, I watch terrible TV without (much) shame, but I also watch some shows with total pride, telling anyone who will listen to get on board.
“Orange Is the New Black” is this kind of show—meaning, if you stop reading this and go watch it now, I’m proud to be on your side.
Taylor Schilling stars as Piper Chapman, a white, upper-middle-class woman who lands in prison for her involvement in drug trafficking ten years ago in her post-Smith College lesbian days. Oh, and this show from “Weeds” creator Jenji Kohan is based on a true story.
Schilling brings an Aimee Mann quality to Chapman. We meet her as a delicate, privileged, woman who is engaged to a man by the time she’s sentenced. She gets dropped into a world she has no skills to navigate, one occupied by people who haven’t had a life as easy as she has had. Whiteness and wealth play a big part in how Chapman is treated, both by guards and other inmates.
The show offers a lot of commentary on sex, race and class and, so far, it’s really well done. (I’m only five episodes in because I have a job and need to sleep. What I really want to do is crank up the A/C and slam through the series.)
What makes Chapman relatable to me, aside from the Smith College thing, is that she is clearly freaking out and totally devastated, but tries to avoid throwing herself a pity party. Relatable might be me being generous to myself. I would totally have a pity party, but I like to think I’d try to handle it as she did, holding back tears and trying to act normal and, in my better moments, accepting the fact that I had done this to myself.
As she sets off to jail, she does what many white ladies who insist on organic produce would—she keeps it light by saying things like, “I’m going to get really buff in there.” In an early episode after a foot-in-mouth situation leaves her hungry, she thinks back to her experience with the master cleanse. We can see that she’s thinking: I starved myself voluntarily? What the fuck was I thinking?
While the show is mostly from Chapman’s point of view, it’s the other characters who shine. It would have been easy to create a cast of caricatures, but that doesn’t happen here. Lea DeLaria nails it as Big Boo, the resident butch. I am thrilled to see Natasha Lyonne on screen again with her weirdly winning combination of frankness and warmth. One of the most interesting characters in terms of how others relate to her is Sophia, a transgender woman who does hair for the inmates, played by transgender actress Laverne Cox.
Reemerging on the scene is Laura Prepon. Gone is her signature red hair from her “That ’70s Show” days—and most of her eyebrows. The over-plucked early ’90s throwback brows play strangely with the glasses, but it all comes together to transform her into someone who belongs—but doesn’t.
Belonging is a huge theme in this show—starting with the question of whether each woman belongs in jail. Interwoven into each episode are the stories of how all of these women ended up incarcerated. Some have been unable to escape fates that were seemingly predetermined by class, race and circumstance; others made bad choices out of desperation. Some are just criminals.
What’s interesting about this approach is that, as viewers, we don’t hear the version they would share with Chapman or each other. We get glimpses into their lives that aren’t filtered through anyone else’s lens or edited by the character to shape a listener’s opinion. Instead, we’re transported back to their lives on the outside in flashbacks.
Another interesting theme is family. Who is your family while you’re locked up? How do you create a new family? Who will wait for you on the outside? Who can you trust, if anyone?
From guard gropings to relationship craziness, this show really has it all in terms of drama. But it has so much more in the way it explores classism, racism and sexism. I only hope that as “Orange Is the New Black” progresses, it doesn’t go the way of “Weeds” and turn from something thought-provoking and layered into something campy and over the top.