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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

‘Orange is the New Black’: a sentencing of thoughtful humo

Published: August 23, 2013
Section: Arts, Etc.

For many, summer means beach going, backyard barbecuing and the occasional stargazing nights with friends. For me, the dog days of summer can be summarized in three words: television binge watching. The months of summer bring on the rare opportunity of guilt-free television watching that eludes most of us during the busy academic year. It’s a chance to catch up on favorite shows and find out in what perils our favorite characters have found themselves as well as to know what new adventures await.

This summer, I’ve picked up a few new shows but none have been quite as addicting, entertaining or thoughtful as Netflix’s critically acclaimed series “Orange is the New Black.” Premiering in July exclusively on Netflix, the show was created by Jenji Kohan—who is also the brain behind Showtime’s “Weeds”—and is based on one woman’s, Piper Kerman’s, memoir of the same name about her experiences behind bars.

“Orange is the New Black” follows the story of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) whose comfortable upper-middle class life with fiance Larry Bloom (Jason Biggs) and burgeoning artisan soap business are put on hold when she surrenders herself to an upstate New York prison. Her sentence is 15 months in prison for carrying drug money for her then post-college girlfriend. In prison, Chapman struggles with adjusting to her new life of set rules that are both spoken and unspoken. On her first day, she gets a crash course on power structure when she accidentally insults the prison food in front of the head cook and is consequently starved until she can set things right. Along the way, Chapman encounters an eccentric cast of characters as well as the person who she never expected to see again: the international drug cartel leader and ex-girlfriend, Alex Vause (Laura Pepon).

Incarceration shows are not entirely new to television, with predecessors like HBO’s “Oz” and Fox’s hit series “Prison Break,” but what makes “Orange is the New Black” truly groundbreaking is not only that it’s the first show to feature women in the prison environment, but it also offers a fresh characterization of social privilege, gender and sexuality. Chapman’s difficulties with learning the ropes—although very comical and entertaining to watch—shed light on the privilege Chapman has had that many of her fellow inmates have not. We see Chapman becoming aware of her white privilege of which she uses to gain the favor of the head correctional officer, Mr. Healy (Michael Harney), because they are “not like the others.” As the show progresses, Chapman becomes aware of the privileges that she possesses and is humbled by them.

Although Schilling gives a solid performance as Chapman, the real heartfelt moments of the show come from an ensemble of incredibly well-written characters that are all realized by an equally memorable cast. Notable is the story of the transgender inmate Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox, co-host of VH1’s “TRANSform Me”) who struggles with maintaining the body that she was always meant to have while in prison as well as the story of Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst). Although the show is centered on Chapman—a thin, blonde, college-educated, white woman—such themes about drug addiction, sexual orientation, education and motherhood are pulled to the foreground through these side characters and their touching backstories. The show does contain nudity and suggestive scenes, but the way prison sex scenes are portrayed, however, is not voyeuristic, but instead, it reflects the bleak reality and need for human interaction.

Indeed, creator Kohan has a subtle hand at humanizing these criminals not as bad people, but as people who made bad choices in difficult environments. At the same time, Kohan does not romanticize their plight, as it is clear that they all must serve time and come to terms with both past and present realities. It is the way that the show is able to capture both of these aspects that makes “Orange is the New Black” a sentencing worth serving.