If I had to pinpoint where exactly I fell in love with “Orange is the New Black”, it would be during one moment, midway through the third episode. In it, the show cuts between two shots of Sophia Burset (played by Laverne Cox) in front of a mirror: in the first, as a male firefighter; in the second, as a female prison inmate. You immediately notice the big changes: Sophia has a new body, new hair, and a prison uniform. But, despite these physical differences, her expression is barely altered. She’s gotten what she wanted, and yet she’s still trapped.
The show is based on Piper Kerman’s memoir, which follows her vertiginous fall from upper middle class fiancée to prison inmate after being implicated in her ex-girlfriend’s drug ring. When I first heard the plot synopsis, I nearly groaned — just another Hallmark Channel export in which prison teaches a college-educated white girl some dangerous lessons.
Initially, I seemed to be right. In the first couple of episodes, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) spends a lot of time mooning around her new minimum level detention facility in upstate in New York, inadvertently offending most of the other prisoners and staff along the way. But the show quickly, and wisely, shifts its focus away from Piper and onto the other prisoners and staff, a cast of women (and men) more diverse and engaging than any other currently on television.
At this point during my ranting about how incredible the characters are in “Orange is the New Black”, most people begin suspect that the show takes the cheap way out. In a prison drama, this means establishing, through flashbacks, how every character, or at least every main character, is secretly innocent or exonerated by extenuating circumstances. This conceit makes it easy to love every character, because then the blame falls on the system: on wonky legal practices, cutthroat layers, or cycles of violence.
“Orange is the New Black”, however, does something different. It doesn’t let all those excuses add up. You can see it right in Sophia’s flashback (in an episode directed by Jodie Foster). In order to pay for her operation, Sophia commits credit card fraud. When she’s arrested, she leaves both her wife and her son behind. The show could portray this decision as heroic just as easily as it could chide Sophia for selfishness. Instead, it just holds close to her face, tracing both her pain and her victory.
As the series continues, Jenji Kohan (the show’s creator and head writer) pulls the same tricks on other characters. Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst), Piper’s Haitian roommate, has committed an act of terrible violence and, while she had her reasons to do it, she still lives with the consequences. Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), a redneck meth head, justifies her eye-for-an-eye vigilantism by claiming that she’s receiving instructions from God. Even Piper deludes herself into thinking that because she ran drugs just once, a long time ago and on her ex-girlfriend’s insistence (and because she has a line of artisanal bath soaps) she’s somehow different from all these criminals.
On “Orange Is the New Black”, everyone has their justification for what they’ve done. But instead of making each character seem pathetic, this common trait gives them all a certain, fascinating prickliness. Sure, these inmates might be in need of saving, but they’re not interested in anyone else’s help. They’d rather save themselves.