Prison Breakout

4 minute read
James Poniewozik

In the 12th episode of Orange is the New Black–hold on a sec. Are we all on the same page here?

Orange, Netflix’s terrific new drama set in a women’s federal prison, was released on July 11, all 13 episodes at once. This is a new, viewer-empowering way of premiering TV, and judging by Netflix’s 14 recent Emmy nominations for House of Cards and company, it’s here to stay.

But it also–even as social media have made shows like the camp classic Sharknado more communal than ever–upends the principle of watercooler TV: that we see the same things at the same time. The most dedicated Breaking Bad fan will not know Walter White’s fate before you do. Whereas a Netflix season is like a dark maze; we may enter around the same time, but we exit, blinking, separately.

So some of you haven’t watched Orange; some are rationing it over weeks; some downed it in a weekend. I’ll try to write to each of you here, in the way this new age requires: very, very carefully.

In the 12th episode of Orange Is the New Black, a supervisor advises a new guard to refer to prisoners as Inmate, not by name. “It reminds them they’re not really people,” he says. “But they are people,” says the guard. The boss won’t have it: “You can’t think that way.”

Orange, to its credit, thinks exactly that way. The series, created by Jenji Kohan and based on a memoir by Piper Kerman, follows Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) doing a 15-month stint for helping ex-girlfriend Alex (Laura Prepon) run heroin 10 years earlier. Like Nancy Botwin of Kohan’s Weeds, she’s the viewer’s bourgeois escort into the crime world, a Brooklyn artisanal soapmaker gentrifying jail. (Piper, a fan of NPR, Mad Men and Nate Silver, is the character in Orange who’d be most likely to watch Orange.)

It starts off like a fish-out-of-water-up-the-river sitcom premise. But the show reveals bigger aims, folding outward into a miniworld of ethnic clans and alliances, not unlike the camp of HBO’s Deadwood. We learn the prison economy and its sexual panoply–lesbian, temporary lesbian, hetero and transgender. Each episode gives backstory for a different character, using that old jailhouse icebreaker: What are you in for? (Often, drugs and bad relationship choices.)

In the process each inmate becomes knowable. You could credit that to Orange finding its voice, but it’s also prison revealing its nature. Women’s minimum security is not Oz, but you still project the toughest version of yourself first. Tellingly, the custom is to introduce yourself by your surname, never your first name. As Piper goes from tourist to resident, she and we learn more. Crazy Eyes (a mesmerizing Uzo Aduba), an inmate with an electric gaze who tries to adopt Piper as her “wife,” first seems unbalanced and predatory but turns out to be sensitive and needy. (Her real name: Suzanne.)

While building its world, Orange constructs a propulsory plot. Piper finds herself in a triangle with Alex (who happens to be in the same prison) and Piper’s fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs), a journalist trying to build his career on her story. There are clashes with the mostly male prison staff and a battle focused on the black-market center of the prison: the kitchen. And there are inmates facing the emotional and practical damage of long lockups or, sometimes as scary, imminent freedom.

I’d say more, but some of you haven’t watched. It’s too bad, because a show this powerfully about community should be shared. We should be talking about how Orange raises then defies stereotypes–though meth head turned Holy Roller Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) remains a bit of a backwoods cliché. We should talk about the hell-bent last few episodes and the gorgeous, terrifying finale that sets up Season 2 (coming next year).

So if you haven’t watched: Do. And bring a friend. Don’t do your time alone.

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