Breaking Out Of The Prison Formula

Jul 16 2013 @ 3:04pm

You can almost hear Michelle Dean sigh with relief as she deems Orange Is the New Black “more than just a privileged-white-lady-goes-to-prison-story”:

[It's] a tricky sell of a show, sitting as it does at an increasingly raucous intersection of pop culture and identity politics. The show follows Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) as she heads to jail for 15 months following a very bad decision in her early 20s. The privileged-white-girl-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks plot can very quickly become a powder keg, as Lena Dunham so recently learned. Plus, comedy is an odd match for this setting; we usually expect more grit and gloom from prison, as in HBO’s Oz. But somehow, creator Jenji Kohan has whipped up a delightful show from that dicey premise.

Alan Sepinwall praises the series for zooming out from the main character:

Through Piper, we get to learn how the prison ecosystem works — the voluntary segregation by race, the legal and extra-legal aspects of the prison economy — but we also find out, through flashbacks and present-day dialogue, how the other inmates put themselves here and how incarceration has and hasn’t changed them from the person they were before they were given a jumpsuit and an ID number.

It’s with those stories — how a shy undocumented teenager from Jamaica grew into one of the prison’s most feared elders (Michelle Hurst), the difficult gender transition a fireman made to wind up as the resident hairstylist (Laverne Cox), the way certain lesbian inmates (like Natasha Lyonne‘s recovering addict) feel when their current lovers prepare to return to men on the outside — that Orange becomes particularly engrossing.

In fact, Emily Nussbaum suggests that white, well-educated Piper serves as a narrative “Trojan horse”:

Orange would likely not have been green-lighted if its central story had involved a poor black drug dealer. Even The Wire, one of the blackest TV crime dramas ever, had a white antihero as its lead. So did Oz, which shared a similar premise. (White person lands in penitentiary hell.) But Orange uses that premise as a lure to get us to listen to other voices.

Meanwhile, Matt Zoller-Seitz lauds the show for its “unusually complex and open-hearted” take on sexuality:

The heroine is bisexual, and at no point does the series suggest that she didn’t really love the woman who got her into this mess, or that she doesn’t really love her fiancé. There’s also a transgender character, Sophia Burset (played by African-American transsexual actress Laverne Cox), who enters the story with the eccentric definition of every other character and is never once presented as inherently comical or strange.

Nussbaum concurs:

[The women of Orange] form quasi-familial tribes and wounded triangles; it’s a matriarchal subculture that, as a Seven Sisters graduate, Piper had some preparation for. There are more lesbians here—butch and femme and of every ethnicity—than in any other series on television. Viewers ravenous for representation often graded the fun, flawed The L Word on a curve. Though Orange bears a resemblance to that show, it’s the more solid of the two, at least so far.