Television is like a shopping mall in your living room.
Malls are all different in that no two offer the exact same lineup of stores, stands, and Orange Julius franchises. Nevertheless, you can walk into a shopping center in Manchester, N.H., or Manchester, England, and never be surprised. There’ll be a department store, shoe shops, Hot Topic knockoffs, and a food court. The names on the stores may vary, but the mix remains the same.
And so it is with television. Hundreds of channels, thousands of shows, but for the most part, it’s just the same procedurals, reality competitions, family dramas, docu-soaps, sitcoms, and antihero stressfests, just with different titles. So much choice, but you know what you’re going to get when you sit down to watch.
I just finished the 13 episodes of Orange Is the New Black, which Netflix released on Thursday morning, and for the first time in a long time, I turned off the TV set feeling like I’d just had a great time browsing through a store I’d never seen before.
I’m not sure why Orange seemed so fresh. The story of an upper-middle-class white woman’s incarceration in an upstate New York prison has many familiar components. I’ve watched every episode of Oz. I’ve seen TV shows set in women’s prisons before (Within These Walls, Prisoner Cell Block H, Bad Girls). I’ve seen shows that find drama—usually with a capital D—in the same source as The Real World: take people who usually don’t mix, put them in close quarters, and wait for the sparks to fly. And, of course, I’ve seen programs that use fictional scenarios to explore real-world problems.
In Orange Is the New Black, as in many such shows—including the ones I name-checked in the previous paragraph—the entry character, in this case Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), is privileged and educated. She’s an NPR-listening, Mad Men-watching, big-city-dwelling, wise-cracking intellectual. She’s just like “us,” in other words. And none of “us” would ever expect to go to prison.
Perhaps because even a show produced on the Netflix model, in which the entire series is made available on release day, has to convey a lot of exposition in the first episode, the pilot, in which Piper prepares for her incarceration, is the most clichéd and the least engaging. (Perhaps by way of compensation, the first 15 minutes contain pretty much all the bare flesh that’s on display in the entire 13 episodes.) We learn that the prison inmates are segregated by race (“It’s tribal, not racist,” Morello tells Chapman during orientation), that only one toilet stall has a door, and that the place isn’t as scary as it seems.
The reason the Litch—the federal prison in Litchfield, N.Y.—isn’t scary is that it’s a place where people make an effort to get along. Most of the women have issues: drug addiction, messed-up love affairs in and outside the hoosegow, medical conditions, and the myriad problems associated with poverty. But they don’t create more problems for themselves if they can avoid it. The inmates are true to their friends and protectors, but women rarely make irrational stands out of blind loyalty.
Meanwhile, a plot thread in which Chapman’s fiance Larry (Jason Biggs), a wannabe writer, capitalizes on her incarceration by writing about it for the New York Times and talking about it on a This American Life-like radio show does a great job of exposing how skeezy the outside world can be. Larry’s friends celebrate his achievements, even though his newfound fame derives from carelessly trading on other people’s secrets. Ethical standards that win Larry fame and success would lead to social exclusion in prison—and the prisoners’ attitude seems like the right one.
As is to be expected from a show based on a memoir, Chapman remains at the center of the story throughout the series, but the lens opens out to look at the lives of the other women in the Litch as well. Thanks to liberal use of flashbacks, we come to understand how they came to be behind bars—though we don’t necessarily pity or even sympathize with them. Sophia Burset, a former firefighter who turned to crime to pay for a sex change and to buy the love of her son, is lovable, smart, and caring, but she’s also obscenely selfish. Only a couple of inmates—and several of the prison staff—are completely unsympathetic. None are entirely clichéd.
Even when Orange Is the New Black makes big political points, it does so with a light touch. After Taystee—a charming cut-up who is capable and useful in prison, doing great work in the prison library—finally gets out, she soon returns: In the real world, she can’t get a job that pays enough for an apartment, and besides, she still owes $900 of “fees” to the prison. “Everyone I know is poor, in jail, or gone. Don’t nobody ask ’bout how my day went. … I know how to play it here,” she tells her prison friend.
Of course, Orange Is the New Black has its share of relationship drama, interpersonal conflict, danger, love, and betrayal. It’s gloriously soapy and genuinely moving. Who knew that the story of strangers learning to live together could be so entertaining? Actually, we all knew that. But it’s rarely done this intelligently or this well.