Like many other normally productive women last month, I spent 13 hours (many of them consecutive) glued to the screen watching ‘Orange is the New Black’, the Netflix TV series set in a women’s prison — known throughout the twitterverse as #OITNB. Although my grownup persona wanted to focus on her aspirational book outline, the one with no control over her impulses could not tear herself away. The series has the one thing missing from this summer’s Weiner and whistleblower focused news stories — hope of redemption for those who have behaved unwisely.
As fans of The Broad Side read last month, and viewers have discovered, Netflix (the video rental service that body blocked Blockbuster) is positioning itself to become a media megaforce. The Orange/Black script is based on a memoir of the same title by Piper Kerman, a 1990s Smith College graduate whose post-grad middle class transgressions included a chapter as drug moll to an international cartel queenpin named Nora.
Long after Kerman had gone doubly straight — engaged to writer and editor Larry Smith, with a promising career giving strategic communications advice to non profits — her past jumped out and landed her in the Danbury, Connecticut low security federal prison, (renamed Litchfield for the series) where she served most of a 15-month sentence.
She was released in 2005 and her book about her ordeal was released in 2010. The series has been renewed for a second season.
The Root on Thursday listed “6 Reasons We Love” the show including its clear-eyed treatment of racial frictions and gender fluidity and the “hard-hitting soliloquies taking down male and heterosexual privilege.”
I have added six more things to love about it and invite you to add to the list in the comments below:
1. Girls making strong choices.
We see small flashbacks to the Litchfield inmates’ previous lives that tell us in shorthand the poor choices that led to their current dilemma. Many of them are examples of “BTIM.”
An acquaintance of mine with some personal knowledge of at least one women’s penitentiary, who reminds me of the OITNB character “Big Boo,” a butch lesbian with a deep sense of irony, told me recently that as many as 50% of female inmates are guilty of crimes that can be summed up as “BTIM – bad taste in men.” In keeping with that observation, many of Piper’s sister offenders are sentenced after breaking laws to curry favor with husbands or boyfriends acting on the low road. Once they are inside, we see their survival instincts take hold and envision the chance for their stronger, more autonomous and self-reliant, future.
2. Prison clans
People from diverse cultures reside in American penitentiaries. Among the many coping mechanisms inmates rely on for survival and quality of life are tribal alliances and quasi-family allegiances.
Most of my corrections system exposure comes from 6 months in 1974 when my best friend was incarcerated in a Mexican jail and I delivered food daily to the visitor’s window. I entered the walled compound for two or three hours every Sunday on family day.
That story is part of my own transgression history and my circumstances at Sinaloa state prison were starkly different from Piper’s fictional Litchfield women’s correctional facility. At my friend’s penal institution, the handful of gringos among the prisoners were tolerantly brooked — though not exactly warmly embraced.
In the TV jail, “Red,” a middle-aged Russian detainee who runs the kitchen at Litchfield, fosters some younger women inmates as her “daughters.” When someone in their pseudo family meets a sad untimely end, we are touched by the mourning survivors and their loving support for each other.
3. The people one meets in jail
The real Piper, who is a consultant on the series, told a reporter during the roll-out about her time-serving stint. “The experience of incarceration is trial by fire and you have a unique perspective and relationship to one another that people on the outside don’t always understand.” These women’s lives are at a low point and they are exceedingly vulnerable. Despite their mistakes, the fictional Piper and her convict contemporaries remind us jailed offenders are every bit as human as people lucky enough to have avoided that particular gate of hell.
4. The Cast
Featuring many roles for Latina, white, and black women actors of all ages and gender preferences, the cast is brimming with great talent. The stars are Taylor Schilling as Piper (last seen in Nicholas Sparks teen romance ‘The Lucky One’) and Laura Prepon from ‘That ‘70s Show,’ as Piper’s former lover and partner in crime (now awkwardly locked up alongside her). The supporting players are a mix of show business veterans (such as Kate Mulgrew — Captain Kathryn Janeway of the Starship Voyager — as Red) and newcomers including Uzo Aduba as a psych patient with romantic designs on Piper, and Madeline Brewer who plays a teenage runaway with substance problems.
5. The setting
There have been other successful series set in corrections environments. ‘Oz’, a series created by Tom Fontana that ran on HBO from 1997 to 2003, was set in a maximum-security pen. Fontana used the same flashback device used on OITNB to tell viewers what inmates had done on the outside to lead to their downfall. The troubling and violent ‘Oz’ emphasized prison rapes, shived cellmates, and gang riots while ‘Orange is the New Black’ offers viewers a version of Oz with a woman’s touch. There are the same corrupt correction officers and plenty of same-sex sex, but these jailbirds also dance.
6. Jenji Kohan
The creator of Showtime’s ‘Weeds’ has followed up her tour de force drug comedy, that ended last year after eight seasons, with another funny, flawed, heroine caught up by her own dicey deeds. Kohan acquired the rights to Kerman’s 2010 memoir and recast the principal character as the pretty, Barbie doll blonde, college educated “Piper Chapman.”
Although Kerman edited out and changed lockup mates’ “distinguishing characteristics,” in her book in order “to afford them their privacy,” Kohan’s adaptation, as June Thomas wrote in Slate, expanded the memoir’s “pale ghosts” into “wild, raging, colorful women I now know as Taystee, Crazy Eyes, Red, and Dayanara.”
I can already picture these can’t-look-away characters capturing my imagination for many more seasons to come.
Bonnie Goldstein is a writer in Washington DC. Follow her on Twitter @KickedByAnAngel