Netflix’s ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Is So Much More Than Just a Privileged-White-Lady-Goes-to-Jail Story

Orange Is the New Black is a tricky sell of a show, sitting as it does at an increasingly raucous intersection of pop culture and identity politics. The show follows Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) as she heads to jail for 15 months following a very bad decision in her early 20s. The privileged-white-girl-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks plot can very quickly become a powder keg, as Lena Dunham so recently learned. Plus, comedy is an odd match for this setting; we usually expect more grit and gloom from prison, as in HBO’s Oz. But somehow, creator Jenji Kohan has whipped up a delightful show from that dicey premise.

I’ve only watched three episodes so far, so the show is still getting its legs under it. But it’s hard not to be impressed by the way it has already addressed issues of sexuality, aging, gender identity, and the corporatization of the modern prison. In part this is because each episode is structured as a chronicle of not just Piper’s life in prison, but also the lives of her fellow inmates before they ever arrived there. It makes for somewhat choppy chronology, but it’s a great choice insofar as you learn far more about what makes these women tick than one could possibly have gleaned from the hostile way they greet Piper.

Particularly impressive on that score is the third episode, in which we’re introduced to Laverne Cox’s Sophia Burset, a trans woman inmate. In a show with less interest in fleshing out the intricacies of character, probably such a character might get one Very Special Episode in which she battles the prison administration for her hormones. Here, that’s only one element of Sophia’s story. We also watch her struggling wife tell her, “Your tits are better than mine.” And a co-worker dismiss her new appearance in front of her son. Those sound like after-school special gestures set down like that, but as the series depicts them they are understated, and all the more devastating for it.

The whole thing is enhanced by the sort of no-nonsense approach to emotional situations that Kohan first perfected in Weeds. The comedy sometimes veers towards excessive broadness — Jason Biggs doing the mandatory Jason Biggs masturbating scene as Piper’s fiancé was particularly over-broad. But mostly Kohan’s style of light satire works here, in that everything about the show is funny, but it’s anchored in enough reality to keep away from being flippant.

For example: every character in the jail looks… like they’re in jail. They do not look buffed and polished, nor even like the sort of Norman-Rockwell picturesque inmates that populate films like The Shawshank Redemption. Instead they are an amazing assortment of women who look like actual women, which makes Schilling, ostensibly the lead, look liked the freak among them, even with lank hair and little makeup. Singling her out like that seems like deliberate design.

And these women are, to the last one, memorable and compelling presences. The caliber of their performances is another feature of the identity politics of doing a show like this; as Kohan herself pointed out in an interview with HitFix, “you’re not gonna go into a network and say, ‘I want to talk about black women and Latina women and old women in prison.’” Because the prevailing view in Hollywood is that those people don’t have compelling stories. So these actresses don’t get a lot of work. And what the show understands best is just how much we’re missing out because of that.

The way the theme song puts it is this: “Remember all their faces, remember all their voices, everything is different the second time around. You’ve got time.”