When Orange Is the New Black (OITNB) aired on Netflix in July, its splash was as intense as that of its Netflix-produced predecessors: House of Cards, as well as the latest installment of Arrested Development. While the cut-throat Washington scene was miles ahead of the unfocused and uninteresting Bluth family, OITNB had appeared to satisfy many critics’ addiction to online television.
OITNB, from the start, is a show with guts. It is not afraid to make us cringe, not because it is awkwardly funny or morbidly repulsive, but because much of what happens is outright bizarre. For the most part, the shows’ viewers have never experienced what transpires within the fences of a women’s prison. OITNB is not afraid to convince us that this is probably to their benefit.
Our main inmate, a blond health-nut named Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling, FCLC ’06), finds herself locked up for 13 months after being convicted of carrying drug money on an international flight. Her soft looks and her quiant lifestyle become her weakness, as her uppity white culture is one unwelcome within the prison walls. In one scene, we find Piper becoming aroused just by hearing the groceries her fiancé picked up at Whole Foods. So, yeah – she is one of “those white people.” Recently engaged to her fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs), the couple is attempting to fast-forward through the sentence so that their normal lives can resume as soon as possible. The inevitable bumps in the road, however, make the time seem more draining than they had presumed.
While there is an immediately complex web of characters, each of the women share something: They are, for the most part, at their respective low points in life. OITNB leaves us with the reality that it does not get any worse than living within the gates of the prison system, dealing with sexual threats from abusive guards and consuming Class-D food day after day. Fortunately, many of the characters do not scurry along in vain. Each episode focuses on a specific woman, drifting from present to past, a time when their personal lives were southbound. It is a fascinatingly redemptive aspect of the series as each character becomes considerably more likeable with each episode.
In the end, however, OITNB tells a tale about making friends and finding redemption when the going gets tough. It’s no House of Cards, but it’s a much-needed spotlight on women, albeit those living in the vile and volatile world of prison.