My heart started racing when I read Emily Nussbaum’s description of Orange is the New Black as “the love child of Oz and The L Word” in her New Yorker review of the latest release from Netflix. It may seem odd that a review of a television show would have the same effect on me as, say, running a mile or seeing a ghost, but that sentence made OITNB seem like it was made specifically for me. If a TV show doesn’t have at least a few crooks in it, I’m not interested; I like TV about cops and lawyers, but it’s prison shows like Oz that really interest me.
The other parent in Nussbaum’s metaphor, Showtime’s The L Word, went off the air several years ago after six seasons that gradually declined into sloppy farce, and yet, not a week goes by when I don’t have at least one conversation about it. This is because I am gay. The L Word, a drama about a group of lipstick lesbians and the occasional soft butch who live in West Hollywood and are really into coffee dates and gossip, premiered when I was a 20-year-old newly out homosexual. It was never great, but we loved it with the devotion of Trekkies, us gay ladies. All across the country, lesbians would gather in gay bars to watch it together on Sunday nights, despite how terrible it became at the end, because no one had Showtime but we couldn’t wait until the DVDs came out.
If we missed a Sunday night screening, my first girlfriend and I would watch the episodes in blurry six-minute clips uploaded to YouTube the next day. Most gay women of a certain age have seen the whole series at least once, and we have strong opinions about whom we love (Bette) and hate (everyone else). After The L Word finally died, it was replaced by a reality spin-off called The Real L Word, a sad replica of the original more likely to include lesbian Jello wrestling than an interesting storyline. Minor gay and lesbian characters are fairly regular on TV now, but there hasn’t been a lesbian lead on a major TV show since The L Word. Not that the actors on either The L Word or OITNB are gay—real dykes still seem to be too dykey for TV—but I’ve missed seeing straight women play gay, and was excited to see what OITNB creator Jenji Kohan would do with queer characters.
The days of blurry six-minute clips on YouTube are over, and for either good or bad, I was able to binge on OITNB, finishing the whole season on Netflix Instant in just five days. Five days might not seem like a true binge—I have a friend who finished it in less than 48 hours—but that’s an entire season of television completed in less time than it takes to recover from a pulled tooth. Binging on TV generally makes me feel guilty and brain dead, but Orange is the New Black is smart enough so that I didn’t end the series feeling stupid. It’s not smart like Charlie Rose interviewing Ban Ki Moon is smart, but it’s smart like Weeds (another Jenji Kohan creation) is smart, and that’s smart enough for me.
Orange is based on a memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman, a blonde, blue-eyed Smith graduate who spent a year in federal prison for transporting money for her international drug-smuggling girlfriend. By the time Piper was indicted and sent to prison, she had long since ditched both money laundering and the girlfriend, and was living a comfortable, privileged life in New York with her fiancé Larry, played in the series by Jason Biggs. In the show, Kerman is renamed Piper Chapman and played by generically attractive Taylor Schilling, who has a familiarity that kept making me think: Was she on Law & Order? Lost? Heroes? Gossip Girl? That web series about a marijuana-dealing bicyclist in Brooklyn? Is she Katy Perry’s cousin? Did I know her? I do not know her, but after finishing the show, I wish that I did. Not Schilling, exactly, and not even Kerman, but Piper Chapman, who, unfortunately, does not exist.
The show veers wildly from the memoir, but this is to the audience’s benefit: while Piper Kerman’s time in federal prison was certainly no Tahitian vacation, she also didn’t experience the type of abuses Piper Chapman does, the type of abuses that make the show seem real. Piper Kerman also didn’t do her time in the same facility as her ex-girlfriend, Alex (Laura Prepon), and it’s the relationship between Piper and Alex that really made the show for me. Like I said, I’m gay.
When Piper discovers she’s in the same prison as Alex, her initial reaction is horror: If it weren’t bad enough that she’s incarcerated, she has to share a communal bathroom with the person who put her there. And Alex did put her there—besides getting Piper into the drug trade in the first place, she also gave up her name in exchange for a reduced sentence. But Piper doesn’t know this, and before long, she and Alex have rekindled their romance. Their relationship is convincing and sweet—flashbacks show them as a young couple deeply infatuated with each other, and Piper seems far more attracted to and connected with Alex than she does with Larry, who I can’t look at without seeing an apple pie his crotch. I rooted for Piper and Alex, hoping that Piper would never find out that it was her girlfriend who ratted her out. I wanted them to do their time together and then get paroled together, have a wedding in Vermont and take up artisanal cheese-making. Of course, Piper does find out the truth, and she’s pissed. But Alex’s explanation is understandable as well: she hadn’t spoken to Piper in eight years when she got busted, and besides, Piper had left her in a European hotel room just after her mother died. Alex was still heartbroken from Piper walking out on her. Of course she rolled over. To me, this act makes Alex all the more sympathetic. What scorned lesbian wouldn’t give up her ex-girlfriend and then happily reunite in the confines of prison? The only unbelievable aspect is that it took more than a day.
Alex and Piper are not the only couple in this women’s prison, and the rampant lesbianism enrages a bumbling prison administrator, Mr. Healey (Michael Harney), who has a mail-order bride of his own and both fetishizes and despises the inmates. His retaliation for lesbianism—sending Piper to solitary confinement after he sees her and Alex dancing together, for instance—is so arbitrary and unjust that it’s completely believable in the context of both television and the American criminal justice system. All of the prison employees are either incompetent or evil, and the most egregious offender is George “Pornstache” Mendez (Pablo Schreiber), who harasses, molests, and blackmails prisoners into complying with him. The casting on Orange is incredibly well done, and Schreiber manages make even loathsome Pornstache sympathetic when he falls in love with an inmate who sets him up to be fired for inappropriate conduct, completely oblivious that she fucked him not because she loves him, but because she hates him.
Other standout characters include Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett (Taryn Manning), a meth-addicted, God-fearing faith-healer with the voice and teeth you occasionally encounter in my hometown in the Appalachian Mountains; Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba), a possibly psychotic inmate with bugged-out eyes of a cartoon character who writes love poems, recites Shakespeare, urinates on Piper’s floor when her romantic overtures are rejected, and then asks why everyone calls her Crazy Eyes; Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), a former rich kid junkie who finds better family in prison than in her own Upper East Side kin; and Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson (Danielle Brooks), who has been in institutions for so long—even before she first broke the law—that after being paroled, she doesn’t know how to exist in free society and finds it easier to ends up right back inside.
One of my favorite scenes shows Taystee and her best friend Poussey (Samira Wiley), mocking white women. “Oh, Amanda,” Taystee says in a standard Eastern seaboard accent, slightly nasal and fully privileged, “Did you see that wonderful documentary about the best sushi in the world? Of course, now that I’m vegan I didn’t enjoy it as much,” and a moment later, “Did you hear that piece on NPR about hedge funds?” This dialog is as smart, the humor as sharp, as any other scene in the series, and that exchange was when I really fell in love with this show, a love that expanded through the rest of the season, peaking when Alex says to Piper as they’re holding hands and gazing at each other in a prison bunk: “Are you cheating on me and Larry with Crazy Eyes?”
As the nights got later and I was unable to stop myself from pressing play on the next episode, I knew I would feel a deep a sense of loss when it was over. When the end did come, 13 episodes and five days after I started, my hopes were slightly dashed: I wanted a wedding. A gay, prison wedding between Alex and Piper, to be precise, and that didn’t happen. Piper makes a mistake and ends up without the girlfriend or the fiancé, pounding the shit out of a meth-addicted Jesus freak on her first Christmas Eve in prison. So while I was sad that Piper and Alex didn’t U-Haul to the same cellblock, at least we got an ending that guarantees a second season. Piper Kerman might have done her time and gone home to Larry, but Piper Chapman isn’t getting out anytime soon.
Despite how much I enjoyed Orange is the New Black, I’m not sure that I left the show with a deeper understanding of the criminal justice system. The show does address recidivism, sexual abuse, homophobia, transphobia, racism, classism, solitary confinement, bureaucracy, arbitrary sentencing, and the privatization of prisons—public policy that dictates that some individuals and businesses actually benefit from keeping the jails full—but I already knew how fucked up the criminal justice system is. I already knew that minorities and the poor are disproportionately represented and that people like Piper are the exception. The show acknowledges that Piper, despite everything, is lucky. When Larry is pitching the story of his and Piper’s relationship to an Ira Glass-like public radio host, he replies that if his was going to do a story on prison, he’d talk to an inmate more representative of the prison population, and we know he’s talking about black and brown people, about poor people, about people who didn’t graduate from Smith and get involved in the drug trade because it seemed like a fun adventure.
I’m curious about how people whose lives are directly affected by the criminal justice system feel about OITNB. I’d ask but I don’t know anyone who’s been to federal prison, or even anyone with a close family member who has. This issue has come up several times in my many conversations about the show. Often, these conversations are about the scene where Taystee and Pousey mock white people. That scene is about us, my friends and family, the people who watch documentaries about the best sushi in the world and listen to NPR stories about hedge funds, and maybe speak with an unconscious snobbery. It was probably written by people like us, for that matter.
After watching this scene, I was reminded of a black studies class I took in college. One class, the discussion was about stereotypes, and an African-American student said something about how white people smell like dogs when our hair is wet. All the white students were mystified. We smell like dogs when our hair is wet? None of us had heard this before, but the black students all agreed that, yes, we do. Afterwards, I asked my African-American friends if this were true, and they both looked at me oddly before verifying that this is a commonly held stereotype. That’s when I realized just how homogeneous the company I keep is: I didn’t even know the stereotypes of my own race. Orange is the New Black reminded me how separate we are: in most of American life, we are as divided as the prison cafeteria—white people sharing a table with white people, black with black, poor with poor, rich with rich, gay with gay, and so on, our only interactions forced by commerce or work.
Orange is the New Black reflects this, and the inmates of different social strata, though connected, aren’t comfortably intertwined. I, like Piper, would be an unlikely inmate in federal prison, and I’m guessing most of the show’s fans would be as well. It’s hard to ignore that I identify most with the blonde, blue-eyed Smith graduate whose last words to her fiancé as turns herself in are, “Please keep my website updated”; the woman who goes to prison thinking she’s different than the people around her, superior, somehow, to Taystee and Crazy Eyes and all of the rest. But she’s not, and as Piper learns this about herself, I hope those of us binge watching at home will start to understand that we’re no different either.