"Why ‘Orange Is The New Black’s Setting Makes It One Of The Best Shows On Television"
In the Washington Post earlier this week, Dylan Matthews made a comprehensive argument for the accuracy of Orange Is The New Black, Netflix’s adaptation of Piper Kerman’s memoir of her time in federal prison, at least on policy grounds. He’s right that the show captures things like the fact that federal prisons can serve inmates truly awful food but don’t allow conjugal visits, that solitary confinement is a commonly-used practice, and that sexual harassment and assault of inmates is common, but Orange Is The New Black also captures cultural factors, too, like the practice of “stealing a date,” or inciting an inmate to commit infractions or additional crimes that prevent her from meeting a release date (often done by one half of a couple to keep a romantic relationship going), or the sorts of creativity inmates bring to makeshift cooking given the limited tools and ingredients available to them in jail. But Orange Is The New Black‘s setting in a federal women’s prison isn’t just great because it illuminates, in detail, the realities of prison life. Instead, Piper Chapman’s (Taylor Schilling) incarceration after she pleads guilty to muling drug money for her ex-girlfriend liberates Orange Is The New Black not just from the social realities of life outside of prison, but from the conventions that have governed prestige drama for much of the last decade.
Because Orange Is The New Black is set in prison, it’s also set in a different point in the dynamic of many prestige dramas. Unlike Don Draper, who lives in fear that he will be comprehensively exposed to the world as a fraud who remade himself during the Korean War, or Tony Soprano or Walter White, for whom the threat of indictment and incarceration linger over their illegal activities and personal lives, or even Carrie Mathison and Nicholas Brody, whose affair, and whose lives as a CIA agent and a runaway are in constant peril, the women who are in prison in Litchfield have already been caught, tried, incarcerated, and revealed to their families as not just criminals, but as flawed human beings. As a result, Orange Is The New Black, unlike many of these other prestige shows, doesn’t have tension and anxiety as its primary emotional tenor, and it’s free to be more observational than plot-driven. The show flashes back to the moments that started the inmates on their road to Litchfield, but those visits to the past tend to be less about how they were caught, and more about illuminating their minds, and the particular needs they face during their time in jail.
Similarly, in Litchfield, men are in positions of formal power by virtue of their jobs as prison wardens, guards, and shop stewards. But because the formal rules of the prison are often less important than the informal social dynamics that govern the relationships between inmates, the official status of the male staff doesn’t win them the status of main characters. Red, who runs the prison kitchen, and who has the power to starve out inmates who don’t like her cooking, as well as to provide opportunities for rehabilitation and jobs on the outside to other women in the prison who are willing to work hard. Sophia, a transgender woman (played by Laverne Cox, who is herself transgender) who runs the prison’s in-house salon, has social capital that might not have been available to her otherwise by virtue of her ability to make women from the butch lesbians who want buzz cuts, to the African-American women who want blonde extensions (courtesy Chapman’s locks, when she needs capital to trade), to an elderly nun, to a faith healer keep up their appearances during their time in jail. The work other inmates do as yoga teachers, AA leaders, and worship service leaders make them the rocks around which the river of prison life eddies, though no group formed by affiliation in Litchfield is as strong as the tribes based on race.
The all-female population of Litchfield also means that the show has an opportunity that most shows set in the outside world decline to take. Sex is hardly absent from the show: Piper’s counselor tells her she doesn’t have to have sex with any other women, missing her past relationship with Alex, Piper for a while acquires a stalker named Suzanne, and Big Boo, an older butch lesbian, mourns her breakup with a younger woman, who left her for another inmate, and now is being released back into the civilian world, where it’s unclear that she’ll stay attached to either one of them, or even continue relationships with women at all. But much of the time, Orange Is The New Black is a show about friendships between women. Piper struggles to maintain her friendship with her best friend and business partner during her incarceration, which came just as the two of them were preparing to dramatically expand their soaps and cosmetics operation. In jail, she has to forge a good relationship with Miss Collette, her roommate and a rumored vodoo practitioner and murderer (she killed a client of her cleaning service who abused one of her young workers), overcoming the older woman’s emotional reticence and high standards for cleanliness. She also becomes friends with Nichols (a fantastic Natasha Lyonne), whose experience in prison is valuable, and whose drug addiction dramatizes the damage Piper was able to ignore when she was muling drugs. Nichols herself has a deep bond to Red, who helped her work through her withdrawal. And the show considers whether you can be friends with an ex as Piper considers whether she ought to forgive Alex, who she initially holds responsible for her incarceration.
Playing out these dramas in prison also means that they don’t take some of the familiar, and derided, forms that have meant that a program like Sex and the City never quite got the due it deserved. Instead of pink cocktails, Red occasionally hands out Scotch in the kitchen. Inmates shop at the commissary, but for basic goods, rather than luxury items. No Manolos are in evidence, but Piper makes shower sandals out of maxi pads, and Sophia fashions her own out of scotch tape on the grounds that metallics are in this season. It’s possible to judge Piper for her naiveté in carrying drug money for Alex in the first place, or her terrified response to prison and her slow learning curve, like when she accidentally stows a screwdriver in the pocket of her sweatshirt. But it’s impossible to dismiss the women as a whole as privileged and flighty narcissists with First World Problems when they’re multi-racial, multi-national, multi-generational, and from all up and down the class spectrum, but removed from the cultural signifiers of modern femininity that get a character dismissed as frivolous.
That’s not to suggest that Orange Is A New Black is an unfeminine show: if anything, by virtue of its novel location, its characters are freed up from the pressure of being compared to their male counterparts in police procedurals, crime dramas, or law or business offices. Instead, the characters in Orange Is The New Black may be locked up, but their incarceration has freed the show to acknowledge that there are more ways to be feminine than are traditionally available to television’s brilliant crazy ladies, criminals’ wives, and bright young things looking up to big men.