Orange is the New Black is a Netflix original series about a waspy young woman serving time in a federal prison. Specially crafted for binge viewing, each episode deliciously slips into the next, and yet creator Jenji Kohan never steps too far into the realm of the absurd as to be unbelievable. Firmly rooted in reality, the show is inspired by Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same title about year in a minimum security prison.
It is the fourth original Netflix series to debut an entire season at once and is gathering a steady and glowing critical reception. Rolling Stone Magazine says it’s the best new series on Netflix. Todd VanDerWerff of the AV Club has a great review and analysis of the entire season, which you can read here.
Suffice to say, I enjoyed it, too. Orange is the New Black is a well-conceived, fully baked series and provides one of the greatest character arcs since Walter White picked up a chemistry kit. Taylor Schilling plays Piper Chapman, an upper class white New Yorker who surrenders herself to a Federal penitentiary for transporting drug money across international borders. The crime was committed 10 years earlier, when Chapman had acted as her (now ex-) lover’s thrill-seeking smuggler.
I’m not usually a fan of flashbacks, but in Orange is the New Black they serve to teleport us beyond the walls of the penitentiary and deliver the rich backstories of many of the women incarcerated. The story lines are tightly spun and the motivations of the characters are so believable that when the first season wrapped, I knew the show was driving us toward an inevitable and ugly conclusion, and I couldn’t wait to see how the writers got us there. Despite her bourgie background, Piper comes to learn that everybody has a breaking point and she’s not so different from the other inmates behind bars.
What separates this hit show from a standard fish-out-of-water sitcom is its heavy political agenda. For many privileged Americans, prison is an afterthought. Lurking beneath the narrative of this mostly bubbly dramedy is the seedy underbelly of the American prison system embodied by the disproportionate representation of disadvantaged communities and the abuse of power of those who have it over those who do not.