Netflix’s brilliant new original series, Orange is the New Black, stars Taylor Schilling as TV’s most unlikely convicted felon. Piper Chapman is a white, upper-middle class, Smith-educated fish-out-of-water in the suffocating air of a low-security women’s prison.
During an excruciating visit with her daughter, Piper’s mother tells her,
Sweetheart, you’re nothing like any of these women.
Initially, at least, she seems right. Piper is engaged to a nice Jewish writer. She lives in Brooklyn, shops at Whole Foods, watches Mad Men and goes on week-long lemon cleanses. In her immediate post-collegiate years, however, she helped her international-drug-smuggling girlfriend traffic money. Now, 10 years and a longterm heterosexual relationship later, she is paying for her crime with 15 months in Litchfield, New York’s fictional federal prison. Did I mention that the show is based on a true story?
Piper is intentionally relatable—a proxy of the Netflix-watching audience who regards her fellow inmates, at least initially, as oddities. Her crime is mostly incidental, an anomaly in the larger Piper Chapman story. She is the demographic exception at Litchfield, not the rule. She assures her concerned mother,
I am not going crazy. I am surrounded by crazy, and I am trying to climb Everest in flip-flops.
From a feminist perspective, his dynamic may seem deeply troubling. And, in certain ways, it is. The show capitalizes on the audience’s affinity for characters who look and sound like them, as if to say She matters because she’s wealthy, white and doesn’t obviously “belong” there. Jenji Kohan, the show’s creator, is familiar with this narrative ploy. Weeds, her previous creation, featured Nancy Botwin (Mary Louis Parker) as a suburban, middle-class, white mother who turned to dealing marijuana after the death of her husband.
But in Orange is the New Black, the choice of a privileged protagonist is somewhat more involved, due in part to the show’s complex, intersecting story lines. Luckily, Netflix’s all-at-once downloading model, made especially for binge TV watchers, accommodates this complexity. The storylines are not separated by long gaps of time; they are deeply interconnected and layered. Each episode prominently features a select character, retelling her experiences leading up to her incarceration in flashbacks. There is Red, the ruthless Russian cook; Claudette, the stern Haitian maid; Sophia, the transgender hairdresser; Nicky, the facetious recovering drug addict; Watson, the former track star; and Sister Ingalls, the nun and political protester.
The show is unafraid of sexuality, queerness and race. Its humor is crass and unapologetic, but Orange is the New Black takes its characters seriously and sympathetically. The women make for compelling characters and believable human beings.
Pennsatucky, a terrifying, born-again ex-junkie who murdered an abortion clinic nurse, is perhaps the most impressive example. Her character is the least forgivable—aggressive, delusional, vulgar—and she makes the secular Piper her unwitting nemesis. But in a moving if brief moment of clemency, we glimpse the poverty and misfortune that underlie her evangelicalism, as she says:
You made the Almighty God into a joke, and a joke ain’t nothing to me. A joke didn’t write me letters up in here. And a joke didn’t give me hope so I could do my time and make something out of it… Do you believe in Hussein Obama? Electric cars and Shakespeare books and do you go out to eat to restaurants? I don’t have any of that, okay. All I have is Him.
Even the characters whose main function is comic relief are developed and animated. Crazy Eyes, a somewhat unstable inmate who is alternately hilarious, frightening and kind, helps an injured Piper to her bed. When she asks, hesitantly, “How come everyone calls me ‘Crazy Eyes’?” her unknowing smile is heartbreaking.
Piper keeps being reminded, even if only momentarily, that the women around her are human and that, while she is separated from them by privilege, she is not so unlike them. In a telling moment of self-awareness, she assures her mother:
I am in here because I am no different from anybody else in here. I made bad choices, I committed a crime, and being in here is no one’s fault but my own.
Unlike most of her fellow inmates, though, Piper’s fate was not overdetermined by her race or class. She’s unlike Daya, whose mother occupies the same prison: Piper did not inherit a propensity to illegal activity or a likelihood of getting caught. And she’s unlike Taystee, who leaves “the Litch” only to realize, “Everyone I know is poor, in jail, or gone. Don’t nobody ask ’bout how my day went.” Piper will be protected by her family, her money and the color of her skin when she gets out.
This is what the show does best: As the narrative tends to each character, it debunks Piper’s prejudices and feelings of superiority and unpacks her privilege. It reminds the audience that each woman is a full person, not an oddity, and it does so with unwavering and addictive wit.