Long ago, somebody told me that everyone has something in them to love, that we could love even our enemies if we bothered to look for what’s special in them. Great stories make you think; great storytellers make you enjoy it. Once in a while something comes along that has all of that, and it sticks with you (Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and HBO’s The Wire come to mind.) Orange is the New Black (13 episodes available only on Netflix) first lets us see, then makes us care about, dozens of people; some we recognize, others might be close to ourselves and many are entirely foreign to us. The great thing about the show is that it looks for something to love in everyone, and it brings the audience along for the ride.
That ride is often devastating, but it is also funny and always entertaining. Taylor Schilling plays Piper Chapman, the audience surrogate who is our entree into a strange world. The show is based on Piper Kerman’s memoir Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison. Shortly after college, wealthy socialite Piper embarked on a relationship with a female drug dealer; Piper transported some money but otherwise emerged unscathed. She went back to a comfortable life and became engaged to a man. Ten years later she was named as a conspirator in the drug ring; she agreed to serve fifteen months in federal prison. Author Kerman has indicated that many details have been changed from her own reality, but the show is concerned with far more than just Piper’s story. Over the first couple of hours we see the prison and the inmates from her perspective, then we get to know many of the other characters on their own and in flashback. The more we know about them the more we come to empathize.
The storytellers show us humanity at its best, at its worst, and at its most mundane. Every character can be unlikable, and they have good moments too. Lest we think that we understand who these people really are, the show provides a central storyline where Piper’s fiancee gives a radio interview and shares stories she’s told him about her fellow inmates. Everyone listens – on headsets, on portable radios, in pairs and individually. The interview is played in voiceover, and we see various inmates as they recognize themselves. Their reactions range from jubilant to hurt to heartbroken. Piper feels betrayed by her fiancee, but she has also betrayed her new community. She is hurt and she has hurt others, and we realize that we only ever see part of who someone really is. It’s a recurring theme, voiced by one of Piper’s key lines: “You don’t get me.” This is antagonistic, but it also contains a question buried within: Why don’t you?
I love Schilling’s work on this show. The acting is high level throughout, but Schilling is magnetic in her mood swings. Although she is pretty, we understand what attracts so many of the other characters to her – she is able to understand what they want or need her to be, and she acts the part until she loses interest, or until something pulls her in another direction. At the same time she depends on everyone’s good opinion to prop up her own self image, and when she loses their goodwill we’re able to see that she needs it back as much for her own sake as to right whatever wrong she might have done to them. She’s not a good person and she’s not particularly bad, either. She’s about as selfish as most of us are. Her range is impressive too, as we see an earlier Piper in flashback (outside of prison) and track her growing desperation and numbness in the present. It’s a fully inhabited, seemingly vanity-free performance (imagine Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde, except with depth and real intelligence, and about three layers of self-delusion running at any given time. It’s a reverse parody.)
What I appreciate most about the show is how it turns expectations around. We are conditioned by male-dominated entertainment to expect certain behavior, and certain forms of conflict resolution. When Piper accidentally insults the prison chef’s cooking, we’re goaded into expecting a showdown of some sort. Piper’s solution is something no man would think of (and makes one wonder why our female leaders don’t come up with more answers like it.) Shows like The Sopranos and Oz featured people behaving very badly, and then even worse – they constantly made terrible choices in plots that escalated to tragic conclusions. There is tragedy in Orange is the New Black, but it is often redeemed by the sense of a community pulling together, in spite of differences. (I am curious to see whether the season cliffhanger becomes tragic or is left as a black joke – it’s one of the few moments in the series that seems to cater to “traditional” expectations, and because of that rarity it leaves us deleriously uncertain about how to feel.)
Orange is the New Black arrives during a new golden age of television. Mainstream movies have largely abandoned adult storytelling in favor of franchises that can be packaged worldwide. The best writers, actors and directors are all telling long-arc stories on TV now. Some of my favorites include Breaking Bad, a clever wind-up toy about creator Vince Gilligan’s core premise (Mr. Chips becomes Scarface); Mad Men, a series of short stories and novellas that focus on atmosphere and overall tone more than recognizable people; Homeland, a breathless thriller and twisted love story featuring a dynamite lead performance by Claire Danes. Orange is the New Black already ranks with these, and it has a deep bench of stories to tell. We leave season one having just scratched the surface of what is possible for this series.