I spent the last week glued to Netflix, watching one thing: Jenji Kohan's Orange Is The New Black.
It's a show about a well-educated and sheltered white woman named Piper Chapman who has to serve a little over a year in prison after transporting a suitcase full of drug money for a drug smuggler. Not just any drug smuggler—her girlfriend at the time, Alex Vause.
Warning: there are mild spoilers ahead on the show. You should still watch it, this is more like a general overview.
In the show, both end up in the same prison. Highly unlikely, but also makes for excellent drama—especially when you consider that there's unresolved feelings between them and Chapman has a fiance outside. The relationship is particularly curious when the Chapman we initially meet seems a little too WASP-y to have ever led the reckless, adventurous lifestyle that landed her in prison. You start out watching thinking that she couldn't possibly be the type of girl someone like Vause would date, and yet...
But as electric as that relationship is, and as much as I was surprised to find so much complexity in Chapman's character* (I was so ready to just roll my eyes at the naive white girl in prison), the real heart of the show has to be the other women incarcerated with Piper. It's been a real treat to see these people shown not so much as criminals, but, you know, as people. Like you and me.
Often, these women are in prison because of circumstance, or for crimes that aren't as black and white as one might initially think. That's even true of crimes like murder. What a striking and heartbreaking contrast, to have the show show us the lives of the inmates before prison: who they were, what they dreamed of, some glimpses of the mistake that took that life away from them.
And what fantastic restraint shown in these flashbacks, too: it would be so easy to overdo it, to show us too much. Instead, a lot is conveyed in short scenes; often not enough to see all the the details of the crime itself. You're left wondering what exactly happened and how, which is great not just because your interest is piqued, but because it becomes less about the crime than about the person and their circumstances. Not to belittle the fact that these women committed crimes, of course...but still.
The show, thus far, isn't afraid to touch on taboo or sensitive subjects. It's surprising, actually. You've got a trans woman fighting to keep her hormones. You've got drug addiction. You've got a lot of homosexuality, which I feel conflicted about—sure, it's progressive in that we don't often have relationships like the ones in this show, but at the same time, lesbians lend themselves so easily to the heterosexual gaze, you know? And there's no skirting around how bullshit and inhumane the conditions in jail can be, especially when you've got guards who have no problem taking advantage of the inmates. The show, although partially a comedy, is dense. Dramedy, I guess.
Most of what I've been taken by, though, is a tension that hits close to home: settling. There's a conversation that Piper has with her best friend, where they're talking about how Vause—as much as there are sparks, and as exciting as life might be with her, she's not the type of person you live a happily ever after. Not the type you'd marry. The Piper at the time was adventurous and reckless. And then that conversation happens (it's in a flashback), and a little later she meets Larry. Good 'ol safe Larry, who knows when to stay in and watch TV. The sparks, the chemistry, suddenly that's not worth sticking around for—do you know if someone like Vause would always be at your side? Better safe than sorry.
So she drops Vause and becomes, eugh, domesticated. And sure, like...dating a drug dealer is probably not the smartest choice one could make. Still, the issue here is philosophical more than anything: it's assumed that you have to reach an age where you mature and start planning for the long-term, the safe, comfortable long term. Even if that means settling for someone like Larry, who is, frankly, boring. Why not go for a little of both? Is adulthood so incompatible with adventure and a healthy dose of recklessness?
Of course this being TV it means that Piper does do the whole back and forth between the two characters, and it's established that she only sought Vause out because she was desperate and lonely: something that she might not experience outside of prison.
The show is not without its problems, of course. Piper can come off the wrong way, but I think the show doesn't try to make her seem better than the other prisoners simply because she's white and well educated. I'm pretty sure you're supposed to see the ways in which she's vapid or out of touch with the real world. Really, by the end of the show, I'm not entirely sure you're supposed to emphatisize with Piper at all.
While the show works hard to get you on the side of the other inmates, Piper is a manipulative, insecure white woman who is in over her head. Can anyone see the way she treats other people without a sense of disgust? I'm not talking just about how her romantic life is a mess, but rather how she describes the other inmates to the people on the outside. The show is not a celebration of Chapman's privilege, but it doesn't hide the fact that yes, she does have privilege that others in there don't. Compare Tasty's release and eventual return to the prison with the knowledge that Chapman will one day leave and write a book and then have a hit show. Of course, while the show isn't a celebration of her privilege, one can't deny that it probably would have been a much better show had it not started out centered around a white woman (but that changes as you go on; you see the lives of others through their eyes, not Chapman's). Overall, I'm iffy on race in the show in general, especially when it comes to the tribes thing it depicts and how much these play on stereotypes of race....but it's also a hugely diverse show. Not just with race, but with depicting all sorts of body types. It's also a show almost entirely of women! Jesus.
It's also a notable maturation from what Kohan delivered in her earlier show, Weeds. Don't get me wrong: that show hit close to home too; it's about the lengths a mother will go for her family and her children. I see my mom in Nancy Botwin and straight up bawled when the show was over. Not because it was good; Kohan kind of went off the rails in the last few seasons of the show, but because it felt like I'd been through "so much" with Botwin. I think I decided that I had to either write a book or make a game about my mom right someday.
Still, it was totally a celebration of whiteness and privilege: the entire shtick, in a way, was about how Botwin was able to get away with it because she was a beautiful white woman. How she was able to go into any ridiculous situation, how she was able to overcome all racial barriers and, uh, sell weed. Kind of gross. That's not what Orange Is The New Black Is.
Anyway, I've written a ton so far and could keep going for ages; it's the first show in a long while to excite and bewilder me. It's good, damned good, in spite of its faults. You should watch it! And if you have, what did you think of it?
*Complexity does not mean I think she's 'a good person,' simply that she's nuanced. I still find her kind of grating, but I recognize good writing when I see it.