What a rewarding TV year this is turning out to be. The latest new series worth finding time to watch is Weeds creator Jenji Kohan’s Orange Is the New Black. Like many of my recent favorites, including FX’s The Bridge, this might seem skip-able if you skim a synopsis, and maybe even while you’re watching the pilot, but the deeper you get into it, the more unusual it seems.
Based on Piper Kernan’s 2010 memoir, it’s a comedy-drama about a clueless yuppie named Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) who gets sent to a women’s prison in Litchfield, Connecticut, for her long-ago and one-time-only participation in drug smuggling. She learns that her old sense of self means nothing there, if it was even solid to begin with. If, like me, you found Kohan’s Showtime drug comedy Weeds entertaining and well-acted but at times insufferably wacky and cute, given the subject matter, the show’s opening scene may prove off-putting: a flash-forward to the willowy white heroine already in prison, stepping out of a prison shower and getting intimidated by a big African-American woman who checks out and rates her breasts. There’ve been so many prison tales throughout pop-culture history, and a good many of them were Tarzan fantasies about white folks learning to be badder than the people of color they were stuck behind bars with.
Fortunately, Orange isn’t about that. It’s about a lot of subjects, all fascinating. One is the privileged worldview that white folks and anyone in the upper middle class eventually take for granted (Piper admits that in her thirties, she became “the nice blond lady that I was supposed to be”) and how this same worldview crumbles once you’re deprived of all your psychic anchor points. Another subject is power, as exercised by the prison officials and guards over the inmates and by the inmates over each other. Related to power are the intricacies of social interaction, and how it’s possible to doom yourself to being perceived a certain way based on a single mistake, as Piper learns the hard way when she unknowingly makes a casually snotty comment in the presence of the one person who’d take offense. Yet another subject is how the past continues to live inside you, even when you think you’ve separated from it and evolved, or moved on.
The show juggles all these concerns via a flashback structure that dips into the pasts of various characters. We start out in the most predictable and obvious point of view, that of Piper, who’s an everywoman character mainly by virtue of being white and middle class, like so many TV characters. We meet her on the cusp of her prison stint and learn that she’s a bisexual woman who had an intense post-college affair with the woman who roped her into drug smuggling (Laura Prepon’s Alex Vause), and that she eventually settled down with a barely employed writer named Larry Bloom (Jason Biggs) and started a small business selling artisanal bath products.
The first couple of episodes are mainly a fish-out-of-water comedy about the terrified, emotionally fragile Piper slowly learning the ropes from more experienced white inmates. (Like most real prisons, this one’s self-segregated on racial and ethnic lines.) Her sort-of-allies include smart-alecky drug addict Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne); a sinewy hippie lady named Erica “Yoga” Jones (Constance Shulman); Big Boo (Lea DeLaria), a cancer patient who tells Piper how to clean a shared cell in a way that’ll pass inspection (maxi pads make great scrubbing brushes, as it turns out); and Anita DeMarco (Lynn Tucci), who is happy to explain the rules of the joint at the lunch table but won’t waste a second sympathizing with the heroine’s discomfort.
Schilling proves herself a superb listener and reactor. When she witnesses a sex act in a prison shower or sees a fellow inmate get brutally slapped in a hallway, seemingly at random, the actress’s face mixes fear, incredulity, and a kind of dissociation, as if Piper is momentarily unsure that any of this is really happening. Some of the exchanges have a marvelous deadpan snap, such as when Nicky asks Piper what she’s in for, and Piper replies, “I read that you aren’t supposed to ask that.” “You read that?” Nicky shoots back, smirking. “What, you studied for prison?”
But this show isn’t just a bunch of scenes in which Piper sees something horrible and acts horrified. Indeed, it’s not just about her; if anything, it’s about her learning that life is not about what happens to her — that she has to get outside of herself and learn to see the world through other people’s eyes. The show’s opening credits are a montage of women’s faces — young, old, black, white, Hispanic, thin, plump, smooth, scarred. As Orange eases more deeply into the world of the prison, it often steps away from Piper and tells other inmates’ stories, including ones that a less compassionate prison tale would leave undefined.
As we get further away from Piper, it becomes obvious that the show is neither endorsing nor condemning her point of view, but rather presenting it as one in a multiplicity of women’s life experiences — probably the lightest one, because compared to the other inmates, she hasn’t suffered all that much. Its treatment of sexuality is unusually complex and open-hearted: There are no binaries here; orientation is treated as more of a spectrum, or as something mysterious and ultimately undefinable. The heroine is bisexual, and at no point does the series suggest that she didn’t really love the woman who got her into this mess, or that she doesn’t really love her fiancé. There’s also a transgender character, Sophia Burset (played by African-American transsexual actress Laverne Cox), who enters the story with the eccentric definition of every other character and is never once presented as inherently comical or strange.
The show even goes to the trouble of giving actual characters to the actors playing the prison staff; their ranks include Weeds alumni Michael Harney, Matt Peters, and Pablo Schreiber (whose swaggering mansplainer character is billed only as “Pornstache,” for reasons that are obvious the instant you see him). An early scene involving Harney’s character, a prison counselor named Sam Healy, hints at yet another of the show’s agendas: to give American TV viewers a sense of the surreal inequities in the criminal justice system. “I’ve got a crack dealer who’s doing nine months, and then I’ve got a lady who accidentally backed into a mailman who’s doing four years,” he tells Piper. There’s no useful yardstick with which to measure any of this.
The flashbacks are employed here in much the same way as the flashbacks in the brilliant and still-underrated fourth season of Arrested Development, which embraced the Netflix built-for-binge-watching format and gave itself the freedom to cut up a linear story into a mosaic of moments. Arrested seemed to understand that if people watched the whole fourth season in nice, big doses, they’d be able to follow the complicated story and would grow accustomed to the storytelling rhythms and view the time-jumps not as interruptions, but as additional information — the TV storytelling version of clicking on a hypertext link in an online piece and being taken to related story that deepens one’s understanding of the first.
Orange’s own version of that technique is quite satisfying. My favorite example is the tale of the prison cafeteria boss Galina "Red" Reznikov. She’s played with great imagination and tenderness by Voyager’s Kate Mulgrew, sporting a Russian accent and a burn-a-hole-through-you stare. The pilot seems to set Red up as a heavy whose sole purpose on Earth is to terrorize the heroine over an unthinking and ultimately minor insult. Suffice it to say that she’s not the person you think she is, and the story behind her prison stint is as darkly comic as Piper’s, and echoes it in some ways, in that it feels like an example of somebody enduring great pain long ago and then paying it forward by inflicting a version of that pain on somebody else. For all its comedy, this is a serious show, one that’s keenly attuned to the damage that women do to other women, and that men and women do to one another, and that the state does to its people before, during and after they go to prison. If there’s any kind of overriding message to Orange Is the New Black, it’s that we are all prisoners of something, dreaming of escape.
* Corrections: Jason Biggs' character is named Larry Bloom, not Larry Stone; also Yoga Jones was not the character who had chained herself to a nuclear plant fence, as this review previously stated.