The second season of Orange Is the New Black kicks off with yet another act of dislocation. Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), who’s been doing time at the fictional Litchfield federal prison, is loaded onto a bus that will take her to a plane that will fly her to a high-security prison in Chicago, where she and her ex-lover Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) will testify against the drug dealer who once employed Alex. This is a momentary change of scenery—relax, Orange fans; the Litchfield cast isn’t going away—but it puts Jenji Kohan’s prison comedy in a wider context. The Chicago prison is bigger, tougher, and more oppressive, its inmates scarier. Piper is in a slightly better position than most fresh meat: At the end of season one, she stopped another inmate, the redneck Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), from shanking her by beating her unconscious and knocking out most of her teeth and has gained an inflated reputation as a “killer” that, under these circumstances, she’s grateful to have. But with her, as elsewhere on Orange, it’s not the prison-picture clichés that resonate but the journalistic details of daily life behind bars: the weary expression on women’s faces as they’re strip-searched and given their inmate numbers. (Piper’s is 1278-1945.) Her walk-in reminds us again of how prison replicates the free world’s race-and-class-and-body-image-based sexual value system. Because she’s blonde and white and carries herself like somebody raised in privilege, the racially mixed, mostly working-class and poor inmates lining the halls react with a mix of lust, contempt, and mild awe, and a debate ensues as to which movie star Piper is (consensus: Lindsay Lohan). When Piper enters her cell, she steps on a cockroach. Her cellmates are furious because they’d trained the insect to run loose cigarettes to and from solitary confinement. The roach’s name was Yoda.
The first season of Orange Is the New Black was a sensation, not just because it was one of several 2013 Netflix originals that established the streaming service as an industry player but because its subject matter violated much of cable’s established wisdom about what stories will sell and what kinds of actors people will watch. Based on Piper Kerman’s same-titled memoir, the series has some violence, but it is mostly a bleak comedy with elements of satire, more reminiscent of M*A*S*H than Prison Break or Oz. The cast is packed with veteran character actresses. Some could be called “names” (including former Star Trek: Voyager captain Kate Mulgrew, who returns as Red, and Prepon, who broke through as Donna Pinciotti on That ’70s Show), but most are up-and-comers who’ve never had a recurring role on a series before and likely wouldn’t fit into an ensemble at a broadcast network, where the bandwidth of acceptable look/sound is much narrower. Many episodes are explorations of difference—black versus white versus brown, straight versus lesbian, male versus female, privileged versus poor—and how it affects whom we decide to befriend, oppose, sleep with, and betray. The series is a gentle rebuke to the reflexive whiteness and straightness of the rest of TV. One of the show’s writers, Lauren Morelli, recently wrote a piece for PolicyMic revealing that working on the show’s set in Queens, “where we proudly employ what has to be at least 64 percent of lesbians in the New York City metro area,” she realized she was gay. Orange’s heroine is a bisexual who started the series engaged to a doofus-y male writer (Jason Biggs), then became female-exclusive again at Litchfield and wondered if she was reclaiming her true nature or just going with the flow.
About that H-word, heroine: I’m not entirely convinced it’s correct to apply it to Piper. True, she’s our entry point into the show’s world, but despite sharing the first name of the author of the source memoir, she’s one of many inmates whose journeys we follow. Both seasons begin with a structural bait and switch, concentrating on Piper for a solid hour and then drifting away from her to let other inmates take center stage and claim the show’s Lost-like flashbacks. After the Piper-centric season-two premiere, for example, the show sets its follow-up episode at Litchfield, where inmates are taking part in an exercise to teach them how to dress and behave during job interviews. (The only suit from a major corporation who’ll take part works for Philip Morris, one of the few Fortune 500 companies that can’t be bothered to worry about appearances.) Fans of Taystee (Danielle Brooks) and Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) will be delighted to learn that each gets to anchor an episode, that their respective flashbacks will prove surprising no matter what pasts you’ve imagined, and that their predicaments aren’t just engaging or funny or sad: They’re plugged into the world beyond the prison walls.
Orange’s plotlines are about what they’re about, but they’re about something else, too; the “something else” is why they resonate beyond the final credits. Kohan’s series stacks the sociopolitical deck by having its mostly plucky heroines endure sneering condescension by emblems of the dominant culture. The problem isn’t the sentiments but the clunky way they’re expressed—as if the writers are reserving the good dialogue for the regulars, along with the empathy. The job-fair organizer’s devastating final monologue to Taystee, for instance, sounds like a list of talking points rather than something a white woman might conceivably say in a prison while surrounded by nonwhite inmates. The guards and administrators, most of whom are male, fare slightly better—the running gag of making many of them chronic masturbators has a touch of Ken Kesey–like rude caricature and drives home the fact that the show owes as much to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Catch-22 as it does to any prison film or novel. The missteps are easy to forgive because, in content as well as form, Orange is a modestly revolutionary show.
The subplot about the pregnant inmate Daya (Dascha Polanco) and her baby-daddy Bennett (Matt McGorry) isn’t a love for the ages; it’s an example of a momentary mistake with long-term consequences, one that neither the couple nor the prison knows how to deal with. Red, who’s already depressed over being deposed as mess-hall chief, worries that the arrival of an old foe named Vee (Lorraine Toussaint)—a drug dealer who used children as runners—will ruin her chances of reclaiming power; but both characters are middle-aged women worrying that their charisma and autonomy have ebbed and that the world is changing too fast for them to keep up. Piper’s story has a political as well as a personal dimension. She’s world-weary not just because she’s been brutalized but because her experience in prison has made her aware of how privileged she is, which makes her feel as though she doesn’t have the right to be sad—as if her depression isn’t earned. The haunted look in her eyes and the desperation in her voice (“I fucked everything up, and not in a fun-loving, oh-that’s-so-Piper way!” she cries on the phone) are the by-product of finding out how unfair, incompetent, and casually neglectful the state can be. But she’s one gingham square in a quilt of female experience. The show’s opening credits announce Orange’s storytelling strategy: an array of close-ups of different inmates, lit and framed like glossy magazine portraits, each held for roughly the same amount of time. Every story matters.
*This article appears in the June 2, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.