Unless you live under a rock that also happens to be out of WiFi and 4G range, you’ve heard by now of Netflix’s new runaway hit series Orange is the New Black. Created by Jenji Kohan of Weeds fame, OITNB is the tale of Piper Chapman, loosely based on the experiences of one Piper Kerman, whose book of the same name chronicles the year Kerman spent in a federal women’s prison. The similarities don’t quite end there, but beyond that, they are negligible. What remains of Kerman’s memoir exists less in plot points and character development than in overarching themes – themes of social and racial inequality, and the balance (or imbalance) of power between inmates and prison guards.
There’s so much to be said about what makes this show great. There’s the perfect cast – i.e., the all-too-believably creepy Officer Mendez, colloquially known as Pornstache, played by Pablo Schrieber, or Danielle Brooks’ Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson, a spunky ex-ward of the state who the system has epically and repeatedly failed. There’s the witty – yet believably so – writing, which is the reason my partner and I now yell “I THREW MY PIE FOR YOU!” at each other several times a day. (Oh, Crazy Eyes, how we love you.) The list goes on and on.
Accolades aside, what I find most remarkable about the series is its truly unprecedented lack of restraint. That’s not to say that OITNB is crass, or cheap, or lends itself to shock value – quite the opposite. The series has no one to answer to but Netflix, Inc. There’s no network breathing down the necks of the writers and producers, no pearl-clutching FCC to worry about, and quite frankly, a negligible unintended audience. You don’t stumble upon OITNB by channel surfing. You find it with a level of intent that’s effectively absent in flipping through TV channels – by reading reviews like this one, or on the recommendations of friends, or family, or Netflix itself. (You know what I mean, you log into Netflix and find a message awaiting you that reads Netflix understands you like quirky prison dramedies with a strong female lead, a cutting sense of irony and – don’t lie to me, I know your viewing history – a healthy dose of girl-on-girl action”¦ perhaps you might try Orange is the New Black)?
It’s funny, given the show’s subject matter, that what delineates OITNB from so many other series is the utter freedom that aided in its creation. But it’s there, in so many permutations, so many jokes, so many plotlines. The concerns of the fantastic team responsible for OITNB begin and end with making a really great show. The characters are who they are – from the meth-addled Appalachian convict-turned-faith-healer to the transgender inmate, convicted for thefts committed to finance her gender reassignment – but they are who they are without apology. OITNB doesn’t tiptoe around the non-mainstream, but at the same time, nothing in the series is gratuitous or extraneous. At the heart of OITNB is the story of an intense love affair between two women – but that story has none of the baggage that seems to weigh on every same-sex relationship shown on network TV and cable, and that lack of baggage is all too apparent in how genuine and how totally electric the interactions between Alex and Piper are. (Larry, dude, I’m sorry, but you’re not competing with that chapel scene, buddy. Team Alex.)
OITNB isn’t groundbreaking just because it pushes the envelope. It’s groundbreaking because there is no envelope to push.
Orange is the New Black may be viewed at any time via Netflix Instant. Fair warning that the series may be habit-forming, but at least it’s not the kind of habit that’s going to land you in federal prison.
Editor’s note: Stay tuned for more Orange is the New Black coverage on P-mag later this week!