I think that when most of us think about what it would be like to go to prison, images from a hundred different movies pop into our heads. Usually those images involve awful things like shower rape, beat downs, rampant racism, and shanking someone over a tube of toothpaste. But would it really be like that? Maybe, maybe not. The Netflix original series Orange is the New Black takes aim on these stereotypes and attempts to show us what it really is like to be locked up, away from our family and friends, and deprived of the thing we all take for granted so easily - our daily freedoms.
Piper Chapman is not a "criminal" in the strictest sense of the word. She's an upper-middle class, privileged white woman who made a bad choice in her distant past and that choice has come back to haunt her in a very real way. Named by her ex-girlfriend as a drug mule for an international drug smuggling ring (she did it once 10 years ago), Piper is now serving fifteen months in a minimum security prison while her very bourgeoisie life is put on hold. That life includes a blooming internet business with her best friend, her new (male) fiancé, and all of her favorite chic restaurants. Like us, Piper anticipates the worst possible experience is waiting for her behind those stone walls and barbed wire fences. But what she discovers is that she is surrounded by women who aren't monsters, but just regular people like her that have made mistakes in their past and just want to do their time without trouble. The trick is finding a way to navigate that time with as much grace as possible.
Orange is the New Black works on different levels. It's a fascinating look inside the experience of a first-time female inmate. Through Piper, we see what it is like to learn the rules (both official and between inmates), become part of a group, try to maintain a relationship on the "outside", and be confronted with sadistic, perverted guards. In Litchfield prison there is an inmate for every demographic you can think of: white, black, hispanic, asian, elderly, etc. And each of these characters are very well drawn by series creators Jenji Kohan and Piper Kerman (who also wrote the original source material based on her own experiences as an inmate). This wide appeal could explain the show's almost instant popularity as seen in its People's Choice Award for Favorite Streaming Series, beating out the other amazing Netflix show House of Cards.
Like any great television show, it's these characters that really drive the success of Orange is the New Black. Each episode gives us insight into one of the inmates, showing us how they got to Litchfield and helping us understand why they are the way they are. Usually, by the end of said episode, out first impression of the character has radically changed. That feeling is expounded over the course of the season as we see both the good and bad in each character. Even the most sadistic guards are given moments that make us question whether or not there might be some sliver of good deep inside them. And the fluffiest of inmates can show their monstrous side when something as simple as a Twix candy bar is up for grabs. The one constant in the show is that no one is sacred and that fact keeps us guessing and coming back for more.
Netflix has really come on strong this year with its original programming. With Orange is the New Black and House of Cards, they now have a couple of hit shows on their hands. Their willingness to confront dark subject matter and not turn away from exploring the truths within those subjects gives the materials a sense of truth. Plus, the Netflix format gives us new ways of consuming the shows; you can take it slow or do an all-out binge over the course of a weekend, the choice is yours. But with Orange is the New Black my guess is that you will prefer the latter. Don't miss it, season two begins in March!