Inspired by the real-life memoir of Piper Kerman, Orange is the New Black features a 30-something blond debutante who serves a 15-month prison sentence in minimum security for a decade-old crime. Orange delivers an entertaining taste of life on the inside that’s as comical, educational, and well written as it is disturbing. And while 15 months may sound brief, for Orange’s Piper Chapman, it’s eternity. We share the laughter while we feel her pain. And we understand why the real Piper became an advocate for prison reform. The series is created by Jenji Kohan (Weeds) for Netflix, which delivers an exclusive 13-episode download and is gearing up for Season 2.
With its superb casting, Orange takes us inside New York’s fictional Litchfield Detention Center for Women, populated by a spectrum of ethnicities and sexual orientations, all of whom are more familiar with crime and punishment than the wide-eyed Chapman, played by the lovely Taylor Schilling. Unlike the other inmates, Piper’s conviction interrupted her yuppie Brooklyn life, complete with a luxury-soap startup business and her engagement to live-in beau Larry, beautifully played by Jason Biggs. Chapman’s chances of fitting into this convict society are about the same as Joe’s Pesci’s brash city lawyer in My Cousin Vinny trying to blend into rural Alabama.
What makes Orange a lot easier to handle than say, Oz, is that it’s minimum security, it’s women, and it’s laced with comedy. Feeding off the sharp contrast of its fish-out-of-water protagonist in her impossible situations, Orange has got the goods that make a story sing. Through flashbacks we learn about Chapman’s past and her female lover Alex (Laura Prepon), who earned her lush living trafficking drugs and convinced Chapman to carry a suitcase of cash.
As an added and fulfilling dimension, Orange develops the colorful characters of many of the prisoners and officials, including Red (Kate Mulgrew), the bigger-than-life Russian inmate who runs the kitchen, the transgender Sophia (Laverne Cox), and “Pornstache” Mendez (Pablo Schreiber), the slimy prison guard we love to hate.
In addition to surviving her sentence, Piper is consumed by a challenge that has a universal ring. She has to stop blaming others and accept her fate as her own doing. If she accepts responsibility, she can become a better person, do the time, and move on.
We can all relate to being haunted by our own bad choices and resolving to do better. And while most of us will never serve time, Orange is the New Black delivers a sobering glimpse of what it really means to be incarcerated. This series has something for everyone. A