When Orange is the New Black premiered on Netflix in 2013, the Emmys didn’t seem to know what to make of it. The show did garner nominations, which in the first year belonged in the Comedy Series categories. The following year things had already changed. New rules mandated that comedy series should be in the half-hour format; therefore, the hour-long Orange is the New Black was suddenly a drama series. It was always both though, skilfully maintaining that approach throughout its seven seasons.
When we first met Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), she had been sentenced to 15 months in Litchfield Penitentiary, a minimum-security women’s prison in New York State. Her crime was smuggling drugs for her girlfriend, Alex Vause (Laura Prepon). That took place a long time ago, long enough for Piper to create a new life in Manhattan with a fiancé (Jason Biggs). It all changed when her past came back to haunt her. In prison, Piper was reunited with Alex and tried to learn how to survive in a place like Litchfield, running into women she would never have met outside its walls.
As the series evolved, Piper became more settled and got to know some of the inmates. Among those who stood out were Sophia (Laverne Cox), a trans woman who was in prison for fraud (an attempt to finance her sex reassignment surgery); Red (Kate Mulgrew), a Russian matriarch who commanded a lot of respect from her position of power in the kitchen; Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba), a mentally ill inmate with undeniable intellectual gifts; Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), Litchfield’s funny girl; and Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), a proud ”redneck” who initially clashed with Piper and Alex because of her homophobia, but later on became a more interesting character.
Based on factual events
Pennsatucky wasn’t the only one; each episode focused on a few characters at a time and offered flashbacks that made us understand them better and explained why they had ended up at Litchfield. The show was based on factual events, depicted in Piper Kerman’s 2010 book. Schilling’s character was inspired by her, but Jenji Kohan, the creator of another excellent comedy-drama series, Weeds (2005-2012), expanded on her experiences. I haven’t read the book, but I do have the feeling that Slate writer June Thomas was right when she pointed out in a 2013 article that the TV series improved on it by turning our attention not just to Piper’s situation but to all those other women in prison. The contrast between Piper’s white middle-class upbringing and that of the other inmates was often a rich source of comedy, but also heartbreak.
Throughout its run, Orange is the New Black had so many tragic, emotional and above all truthful things to say about the troubled American prison system that has little to offer its population in terms of redemption. Women of color always faced an uphill battle and the approach was honest right until the end; there would be setbacks, but also, finally and not predictably, a few moments of hope. The dialogue was improbably witty, but the bonds of friendship and love more genuine.
Orange is the New Black always suffered from a bloated feel; each episode was a little too long, each season had a few too many episodes. But the rewards were ample.
Orange is the New Black 2013-2019:U.S. Made for TV. 91 episodes. Color. Created by Jenji Kohan. Theme: Regina Spektor (“You’ve Got Time”). Cast: Taylor Schilling (Piper Chapman), Laura Prepon (Alex Vause), Kate Mulgrew (Galina “Red” Reznikov), Taryn Manning, Danielle Brooks, Uzo Aduba, Natasha Lyonne, Selenis Leyva, Adrienne C. Moore, Matt Peters, Dascha Polanco, Nick Sandow, Yael Stone, Jackie Cruz, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Jessica Pimentel, Laura Gómez, Alysia Reiner, Dale Soules (14-19), Laverne Cox (13-18), Lea DeLaria (13-17), Samira Wiley (13-16), Michael J. Harney (13-16), Jason Biggs (13-14), Asia Kate Dillon (16-17), Ruby Rose (15), Michelle Hurst (13).
Emmys: Outstanding Supporting Actress (Aduba) 14-15; Guest Actress (Aduba) 13-14.
Quote: “I’m missing half my zucchini. These girls don’t realize I’m here to provide food, not dildos. I’m all out of cucumbers, carrots, beets. God knows what they’re doing with those. I can’t hold on to anything cock-shaped.” (Mulgrew in the kitchen)
Last word: “When I read Piper Kerman’s book, I thought, ‘This is a way into a really interesting world. It’s the yuppie’s eye view to get you in there.’ If you go to a network and say, ‘I wanna do prison stories about black women and Latino women and old women,’ you’re not gonna make a sale. But, if you’ve got this blonde girl going to prison, you can get in there, and then you can tell all the stories. I just thought it was a terrific gateway drug into all the things I wanted to get into.” (Kohan, Collider)