A new kind of jailhouse rock
'Orange is the New Black' successfully turns traditional prison drama tropes upside-down
Everyone is talking about “Orange is the New Black,” the Netflix original series released in mid-July and based on a memoir of the same name. Taylor Schilling, familiar from her recent role in the Nicolas Sparks adaptation “The Lucky One” plays Piper Chapman, the doe-eyed blond girl no one expected would end up in jail. In the pilot episode, we meet Piper as she prepares to serve her time in jail for carrying drug money.
Though our hearts break when Piper must say goodbye to her fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs), our concerns quickly shift to Piper herself as she suffers the initial trials associated with prison rivalry, judgment and violence. Even the most casual Netflix-viewer can be hooked by the roller coaster of emotions packed into every episode.
As the season — and Piper’s prison sentence — progress, we learn more about her past. She is serving time in the same prison as the ex-leader of an international drug cartel, who also happens to be her ex-girlfriend Alex Vause (Laura Prepon, “That 70’s Show”) and the reason Piper was carrying the drug money in the first place. Alex’s presence causes friction both inside and outside the jail — as Piper initially hides the fact from Larry.
A defining quality of the show is that it explores narratives of fellow inmates, perhaps just as deftly as it explores Piper’s narrative. Each episode takes on a new inmate’s backstory in addition to Piper’s narrative. Creator Jenji Kohan, who also created Showtime’s “Weeds,” is a master at crafting dramatic scenes, employing frequent flashbacks to inmates’ pasts to highlight the provocative and deeply human circumstances that guided these women behind bars.
We get to know Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox), the prison’s hairdresser, a transgender woman in jail for credit card fraud. Through flashbacks, the audience learns she used stolen cards to pay for her medical bills and kept the fraud a secret from her son and wife, who are still struggling to accept her transition. Flashbacks also show us the humanity of Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst), Piper’s roommate, who ran a cleaning service of young illegal immigrant girls, a service she herself worked for as a child.
The show also paints a poor picture of the Department of Corrections. The director of the “correctional center” is over-indulgent, driving a Mercedes while the GED program is closed for “budget reasons.” The correctional officers are self-involved and crude, purposefully ransacking living quarters on inspections, sexualizing inmates and constantly covering up their tracks. The few comparatively good officers are punished for being too weak or too emotionally-involved.
The show deserves credit not only for taking on the controversial policies of penitentiary systems at large, but also for its distinctive focus on a women’s prison. While public images of prison are stereotypically male, a television show about the female experience is a bold move. The same issues of sex, race and violence pervade the female-driven narrative. At meals and in group activities there are clear racial groups, though most discussion of race in the show is playful. The show’s true drama come from the emotional turmoil between individuals — as the women come to terms with each other’s egos, sexualities and personal agendas.
Though Piper’s daily conflicts are intense, it is in her sexual and emotional identity that she struggles with the most. When she is forced to face her ex-girlfriend Alex, Piper must decide whether she blames Alex for her incarceration, still loves her or both — all while maintaining her strained relationship with Larry. She is forced to strike the balance between adjusting to her life in prison and working to sustain her life outside of prison for when she is released.
Though it might seem that way at n first glance, the show isn’t about pitying Piper, but instead about telling a story about inherently flawed humans. Family and friends on the other side of the bars constantly try to assure her she is not meant to be in prison — that she is different from the riff-raff she’s spending time with.
“You aren’t like these people”
But these words prove only a source of more frustration.
“I’m not any different,” she counters. But no one, neither inside nor outside of the jail, seems to believe it.