Last summer, Netflix released Orange Is the New Black, the based-on-real-events story of an upper-crust white woman sentenced to 15 months in a women’s correctional facility for her involvement years before in a drug-running operation. The show was created by Jenji Kohan, whose previous half hour dramedy “Weeds,” about a suburban mom who sells pot, began a cottage industry of shows about anti-heroines for Showtime, including “Nurse Jackie,” “United States of Tara” and “The Big C.” The second season of “Orange” begins next month.
By most critics’ estimates “Weeds” went on a few seasons too long; and when “Orange” was slated alongside Netflix’s higher profile shows—“House of Cards,” starring Kevin Spacey; “Hemlock Grove,” created by gore-master Eli Roth; and the return of “Arrested Development”—the buzz surrounding Kohan’s new show was muted at best. Viewers anticipated another small-scale dramedy—“‘Weeds’ Goes to Jail.”
Instead, Kohan has provided in “Orange” a rich exploration into the lives of a diverse cast of women. While the show is pitched as being about Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), the sheltered Manhattanite put in jail for a crime she committed over a decade earlier, in point of fact “Orange” is also very much invested in the lives of the dozens of women with whom Chapman resides. Women like Janae Watson (Vicky Jeudy), the high school track star who throws away her future in a life of crime; Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox), a transgendered firefighter whose wife has continued to stand by her through it all; or Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (Uzo Aduba), a gay black inmate obsessed with turning herself and Piper into a “chocolate and vanilla swirl.” Within the walls of this fictional federal prison in Litchfield, N.Y., we meet addicts, militant and not so militant gay women, meth-head semi-psychotic religious nutbags, a yoga instructor, a mother and daughter, and even a Catholic nun.
And over the course of the season, each of them has a powerful story that slowly unfolds. Taking a page from “Lost,” “Orange” offers flashbacks in each episode that complicate and enrich our sense of who these women are and where they come from. Sam Healy (Michael Harney), the either-kind-or-conspiring social worker, has at home a mail order bride who hates him; Alex (Laura Prepon), the book-smart and street-smart drug lord who got Piper into trouble in the first place, came from poverty. Kohan is constantly on the watch for ways to undermine our expectations.
She’s also a master at the Easter Egg, little things going on in the background that offer hints of other stories: the older woman always on the phone next to Chapman, crying; the woman who spends hours in the one toilet stall with a functioning door, screaming in another language; the throwaway line that Sister Ingalls (Beth Fowler) is in prison for nonviolent antinuclear activism. Time and again, “Orange” teases us to take another look at characters we may have already summed up or overlooked entirely.
Alongside this highly diverse and rich cast of characters, the story of Chapman and her needy fiancé, Larry Bloom (Jason Biggs), feels a bit hollow. Thet metaphor of hollowness is apt; Kohan in fact has called Chapman the show’s Trojan horse. She is the gateway character, the person most like many of the Netflix viewers; it is her story that entices them to enter into this larger, more complicated world.
And she is also the vehicle for the show’s most potent attack. As characters, Chapman and fiancé Bloom embody white, affluent liberalism—educated, socially concerned, comfortable; but they are also narcissistic, absurdly sheltered, and they hold on to a deeply set victim mentality. They are nice people, but they are not good people, and their status and attitudes may hit too close to home for some viewers.
Embracing its own version of a kabuki fan dance, Netflix refuses to release ratings. But it has claimed that “Orange” received more viewers and hours viewed in its first week than “Development” or “Cards.” And if social media are any indication—admittedly, an assumption larger than the National Security Administration’s apparent field of inquiry—the show has clearly resonated. Tweets, reviews and blog posts have persisted since the show’s release, and with a passion similar to that directed toward HBO’s “Girls,” but without the “Why do I watch this show when it makes me so angry?” frustration.
“Orange” makes no claim to the twee cinéma vérité of women’s lives that is supposedly “Girls.” And though the threat of violence is often present, and the sense of danger palpable at certain moments, it is also not the female version of HBO’s searing prison drama “Oz.” No, if “Orange” has a main storyline, it is about a white woman brought face to face with the sinful truths of her own selfish existence and both the painful realities and the hidden beauty of the world in which she so blithely has lived. The lives of the women she meets threaten to break her heart open once and for all, and for the better. And—if Kohan has her way—ours, too.