Orange is the New Black: A Television Milestone

Orange is the new Black

“I’m scared that I’m not myself in here, and I’m scared that I am,”
Piper Chapman, Orange is the New Black

For Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), the least of her problems is that she is in prison. I made this realization about halfway through Orange is the New Black, a brilliant new original series from Netflix, and it is among the many reasons why Jenji Kohan’s latest creation is worth watching. The series follows the lives of Chapman and other characters as they navigate the difficult terrain of a women’s prison. They come to terms with prison rules and rituals, with their inability to impact the outside world, and ultimately with themselves. It may be somewhat naive to claim that the prison setting is arbitrary, because in many ways the series makes use of prison’s potential to to stifle the characters and vanquish their voices, but it is not unreasonable to suggest that prison in this case is merely a narrative device that is used to force these characters into self-realization.

Chapman, for instance, is serving 15 months in prison for drug trafficking, but the show informs us in the first episode that Chapman did this ten years ago, and she is now in prison because an anonymous source turned Chapman in to receive a lesser sentence. This information is crucial as it allows us to feel sympathy for Chapman from the very beginning. It might be harder to care for a mother who murders her child in cold blood, but most people would probably agree that a drug trafficking scheme ten years ago isn’t the worst thing in the world. That is, Chapman’s prison sentence might be understood as the result of a confusing and often contradictory American legal system that, most of the time, functions as a bureaucratic business. Chapman engaged in this activity with Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), her girlfriend at the time and runner of the operation. In a flashback, Chapman and Vause separate, and the present day finds Chapman’s finance Larry (Jason Biggs) driving her to prison like it is her first day of kindergarten. To make matters more complicated, Alex is serving a sentence at the same prison, and she may or may not have been the one to turn Chapman in.

As the episodes progress, however, Chapman gradually loses our sympathy. We begin to find her selfish and narcissistic and it soon becomes clear that she has issues far worse and more complex than smuggling drug money.

In her discussion of Brett Martin’s recent book Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘The Wire’ to ‘Mad Men and ‘Breaking Bad,’ Emily Nussbaum questions why the focus is on male television characters. For Nussbaum, Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City is a complicated character worthy of our discussion, and Nussbaum argues that she can be classified as television’s first female anti-hero. It may be a stretch to call Bradshaw the first, especially if we consider Jane Tennison, but Bradshaw is definitely the more complicated woman we love to hate. Therefore, Nussbaum might be relieved to discover that we have another female anti-hero in Piper Chapman, and that Chapman might become the most complicated of them all.

And what a relief it is to stumble upon a television series that features a complicated woman at its center and doesn’t mock or condescend her complexities. Kohan depicts Chapman’s past life as a lesbian with the same level of seriousness as she does Chapman’s current life with Larry and the struggle the two face to maintain their relationship during her absence. Chapman’s love affair with Vause is not represented as a quirky phase but an important period in her life that still profoundly impacts her worldview. Larry represents the safety and security whereas Vause signifies excitement and adventure, and Kohan is wise to show how complicated it still is for Chapman to choose between one or the other.

While all of that is wonderful, what makes Orange is the New Black truly revolutionary, aside from being the first great Netflix original series, is its willingness to feature an all female cast of many sizes, ages, and races in this increasingly male-driven-youth-obsessed-skinny-white American culture. Moreover, shows that do depict the lives of women tend to focus on the burdens of white privilege or white girls/women who are privileged but don’t realize it. For instance, Girls is a fantastic show, but there is no denying that it speaks for a minority group of women–the twenty-something city dweller who thinks she suffers. Tough lives, perhaps, but Orange is the New Black is about minorities of a different kind. That is, Orange is the New Black is about the nameless women who fall through the cracks of a cruel American justice system and live on the fringes of society. Not all of these women are African-American or Latino. In fact, the show makes clear that about half are as white as Chapman. Most are poor, however, and most have been abandoned and forgotten about by the people who were supposed to care for them. Some screwed up, to be sure, but the vast majority of them got screwed, and it is hard to truly appreciate the series without understanding Kohan’s political stance.

The stance, while honorable, might be hard to swallow: Prison sucks, but for most of these women, it beats the real world. The irony is that most of them don’t belong in prison yet many of them prefer to be there because there is nothing and nobody waiting for them on the outside. To some, this sobering truth may be a tired prison cliche, but that does not make it any less true, nor does it make it easier for us to come to terms with our own good fortune. And then there is Chapman, who isn’t quite sure where she belongs.

And could it be, then, that Orange is the New Black is ultimately a series about trying and wanting to fit in? About coming to terms with yourself in a world that may not like what you have become? About realizing who you are and how far that takes you away from where you once were? I don’t want to jump to conclusions after the first season, but to me, the series suggests that each of these women have demons to wrestle with and that they have avoided these demons because these demons can tell them who they really are.

The tragedy of prison isn’t that it harbors so-called criminals who could have had so-called real lives if only they made the so-called right decisions. The tragedy of prison is that it harbors human beings who had no chance in the so-called real world. For Kohan, the question is simple to pose but complicated to answer: Where do these women go when no one else wants them?

Where does, for instance, Sophia (Laverne Cox) go after she tells her wife and son that she wants to live as a woman after years of living as a man? What about Tasha (Danielle Brooks) who is released from prison to a place that doesn’t need her and ultimately decides that she is happier and more comfortable back behind bars? The tragedy is that for a great many of people in America, prison becomes a sanctuary and a refuge.

In prison, these women form a community in which they can find peace and comfort in such confining conditions. They can be understood for who they are as opposed to judged. Even Chapman, who arguably has the most fortunate life out of all of the inmates, and whose future will not be affected by her prison sentence in the way that it impacts the other inmates (see the memoir upon which this series is based), becomes aware of herself. Her feelings for Vause resurface and they begin another affair, and she questions the one she has with Larry.

And not all of this is good, either. In Chapman’s case, her true colors may reveal extreme levels of selfishness and narcissism, and the season finale ends on a powerful cliffhanger that suggests she may not be worthy of our sympathy. It implies that Chapman may not be the pitiable woman she presents herself as to her family and friends, and that she may have more in common with the woman she was in her twenties when she carried on an impulsive lesbian relationship, smuggled drugs, and ultimately abandoned that for the next great thrill. The disturbing implication of the series is that Chapman’s life with Larry and their circle of friends may be the facade and that her prison sentence is slowly forcing her and allowing us to realize that the real Piper Chapman is the selfish, cruel woman of her past who only cares about herself. I hope I’m not the only one who finds the irony in that Chapman’s crime is the less serious out of the inmates, she is the most educated and most privileged and cared for, and yet she is also the most damaged with the most unattractive personality.

Further, Kohan makes it clear that while Chapman suffers, her suffering is minor compared to the tragic lives of her fellow inmates. By contrasting Chapman with the other inmates, Kohan demonstrates the social disconnect between the wealthy elite and the poor minorities, and how Chapman’s social standing gives her an advantage to deal with prison by default. This is a brilliant creative choice, because Kohan could have taken the easy way out by depicting all of the inmates’ suffering as equal. Instead, she tackles the harsh truth head on: For wealthy people in America, prison isn’t necessarily a problem. Or, to put it another way, people like Chapman have a life waiting for them when they get out of prison, whereas many of the other inmates have nothing and view prison as their only option.

The thing about prison is that there is no running away. Sooner or later, these women have to face themselves. The scary part, it seems, is not the realization per se, but what the realization reveals. What happens, for example, when Tasha learns that the real world doesn’t care about her, or when Sophia discovers that her family wants to forget about her? And what happens when Chapman begins a relationship with her former lesbian lover while her fiance waits for her on the outside?

After all, some of these women might never leave, but Chapman is out in 15 months. If prison only brings out her selfishness and carelessness, and if it brings her closer to Vause and further away from Larry, what will become of her when she is released?

What will become of the rest of these women when they come to terms with who they are, where they come from, and where they might be going?

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Jon Lisi is a PhD student who writes about film, television, and popular culture. You can follow his work here:

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  1. Great series but lots of stereotyping going on but it’s necessary for the storyline. I watched the full season in one go (I almost have no life).

  2. Couchman

    I love all the backstories. Red especially interests me. They’ve really given her a really good background to showcase her ambitions and personality. Tricia had an interesting story but too bad they iced her so early. Pennsatucky is my fave. Great story. Who knew Taryn Manning could act so well? It will be intersting to see what beginnings Crazy Eyes comes from. Definitely want to learn more about Mr. Healy and his mail order wife.

    The one character I want gone is Larry. Any time he’s onscreen, I just want to fast forward so I don’t have to hear his whiny voice complaining again.

  3. I didn’t know this show was from the same creator as Weeds until the last two episodes of Season 1. But before that I was thinking how similar this was to Weeds. With the one dimensional single focused characters that are really short-lived because the writing paints them into a corner and then they have no where to go, so they just start getting weird. In Weeds she no longer had a reason to sell pot even had a regular job, but she went back to it anyway for no good reason, simply to have more seasons which were very flat.

    Piper is like this in Season 1. Even after her bad experiences it has not changed her to just do her time and not get involved with anyone and make trouble. But the problem just like Weeds is that she can’t just do that cause they won’t have multiple seasons of the show. The way they ended Season 1 was done most likely to extended time for her being in jail for the purposes of the story.

  4. I’m a minority here, obviously, but I didn’t like it like the critics did.

  5. I love this show. I have to suspend reality to do so because I am sure real prison is way more scary than this show represents. But what I really like about the show is it is their mission to show that the characters are not one dimensional.

  6. Ligther Stand

    Wrote about this somewhere else and bringing it here. I’m not sure if this crossed anyone’s mind besides me, but I thought it was weird that the Latinas believed such crazy stereotypes about the black women considering most of the main Latinas on this show are clearly mixed with black themselves. Specifically Daya, the current main cook, and the pregnant one who thought black people couldn’t float… hell, she’s a Sanaa Lathan look alike.

    I know this happens in real life, since more Africans being kidnapped to Latin America than the USA isn’t talked about a lot, so I guess it also highlights how ignorant they are. However, it feels unintentional from the show’s perspective, so it seems a bit odd.

    • Glen Lauterbach

      The thing is, there are characters of every race on the show who act like the stereotype, and there are those who don’t. That’s how it works in real life. I know women who act exactly like Taystee, and I know black women who don’t.

  7. Kelsey Clark

    Great read! I will definitely check this one out!

  8. Joseph P

    Wow this was a fantastic read. You elevate criticism into something meaningful as opposed to the typical “it was good” or “it was bad” claims.

  9. Awesome read! I’m also glad you didn’t give away too much, because I’ve been told I should start watching this show. This article certainly validates that.

  10. Michelle Webb

    What a fantastic article, with depth and insight. I will have to watch!

  11. Great article! And a fantastic show as well. Taylor Schilling has turned her career around with her enrapturing role here. IT’s also brutally honest and intricately directed. Good Choice!

  12. Amelia Roberts

    Fantastic article! I’m really excited to start watching.

  13. Joe Russell

    Nice article. I started watching out of boredom one night but got hooked pretty quickly; some of the characters are fascinating. Not 100% about a few of the sub-plots but more often than not I think it’s really well thought out and written. Looking forward to the next series.

  14. Sierra Throop

    I have yet to watch this show but would like to in the near future since I have heard nothing but good things. I heard an interview with the woman the show’s story is based on (which is a true story) and found her to be quite interesting.

  15. I’ve just finished watching the first season and I absolutely love it. The complexity of characterisation and diversity of representation is fantastic. It’s unfortunate that, like in so many other narratives featuring people of colour, the way into the women of colour’s stories in Orange is yet again through a white protagonist, but I’m hoping the success of this show’s diversity will prove something.

  16. Yes, this series is revolutionary — but why do they have to depict women — especially women of various races — within the walls of jail. Why can’t women of color be in the leading roles of popular cable television shows where they /aren’t/ criminals?

  17. Netflix is really doing things right here. They have really good TV shows that they release all at once and then leave viewers waiting almost a whole year for them to watch the next season. Binge viewing is really the way of the future. The only I problem I may have with this show is what they’re going to do after she leaves jail, will the show be over then? Since this is based on a novel will the show be over with in 2 seasons or will they make up a different storyline?

  18. First off, I love this analysis. I cannot wait until the next season is released!

    Secondly, while I do see where you’re coming from, I’m not sure if I agree with all of it. It very well may be true that Kohan created this program to show where people go when they’re not wanted, but I believe the fact that they are in prison and that we the viewers are drawn into their world in this prison shows a lot about human nature. At least in my experience, I’ve always viewed prisoners as people who have done bad things and deserve to be there; but after really watching this television program, I do believe some things have been said about the people behind their title of “prisoners,” and about life in prison itself.

    There is a disconnect between prisoners and people, but Orange is the New Black showcases a different side to this view, for which I am personally very thankful.

  19. I love OITNB!!! Your article about it is amazing!

  20. You make a lot of good points, particularly the idea that being in prison forces these women to confront their demons. I disagree, however, with your claim that prison becomes a sanctuary and refuge. The inmates face deplorable conditions, and while it’s true that they might not have a place to go on the outside, this is largely due to having been in prison in the first place. Generally speaking, that’s a problem faced by many people in the U.S. who are sent to prison–once they are released, it is far more difficult for them to find jobs, housing, etc. afterward, particularly if they don’t have a support system like Piper does. But I can see how, once incarcerated, these women are afraid to go back to a world that will treat them so harshly.

  21. I have noticed in this comments section that the opinions on Orange is the New Black are fairly mixed. As of now, since the series is ended, the opinions seem to reflect how the series will be remembered, and that seems to be (now that there is some chronological distance) that the show is and will be considered a footnote at most and mostly a fad.

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