I keep running into Orange Is the New Black. Netflix released the show over the summer to generally fantastic reviews and its popularity just continues to soar. My friends admit to binge watching, my colleagues are obsessed, and my Facebook newsfeed is filled with posts like, “I told my 3 year old, it’s time for you to go to bed. Mama and Daddy have a show to watch …” Speculation has it that Netflix’s new original programming, led by Orange, has helped the company update its image, increase its subscriber base, and raise stock prices.
So what is it about this show? It’s certainly got a great premise. Whole Foods eating, artisan soap making, Brooklyn dwelling, engaged to a nice Jewish boy, Piper (played by Taylor Schilling), gets sentenced to 15 months in prison. Her crime dates back 10 years to those carefree days after college, when she traveled the world with her drug cartel employed lesbian lover, and, oops, agreed to carry a suitcase full of drug money out of an airport. Orange exhibits the strong storytelling that we’ve come to expect from the show’s creator, Jenji Kohan (who also brought audiences Weeds), combined with the street cred of being based on the real life experiences of Piper Kerman. The show also boasts an incredible ensemble cast, featuring a diverse group of actresses who look like normal women, which is refreshing for television.
But, there’s something fresh and edgy about this show that goes beyond its plotlines or diversity. Could it be that, as much as it offers viewers a fictionalized look at life in a women’s prison, with all the requisite fantasy, Orange manages to feel relevant? The writing, full of storytelling punch, also explores a series of issues that reflect the current interests of our society. Underneath the frothy TV drama there’s a lot to unpack.
There’s no better place to dive in than Orange’s setting: prison. Another prison show, you ask? But is that a coincidence or can we hypothesize that Americans are interested in prison stories because it’s part of our current national conversation? Supermax prisons, the California prison hunger strike, Herman Wallace and the Angola Three, the US incarceration rate, racial disparity in prisons- the list goes on and on. We are curious and, as Orange proves, successful programming responds to our curiosity.