Let’s say you’re an attractive white, blond woman in your early 30s who comes from money and graduated from an elite liberal arts college. You’re a restless personality, but after an affair with a lesbian drug runner a decade ago, you’ve more or less returned to a life filled with multiple options, loose commitments, and soft landings. You live near New York with your fiancé, an unremarkable Jewish writer supported by his parents who tolerates your impulsive juice-cleanse rituals, and you’re starting a business with your pregnant best friend selling artisan soaps. But then your situation shifts, vertiginously. The estranged ex-girlfriend gets arrested and names you as a co-conspirator in her drug ring, two years before the statute of limitations runs out. Instead of going to court, you reach a plea bargain for 15 months in a women’s correctional facility.
This is the trajectory of Piper Kerman (Taylor Schilling) and the jumping-off point for Weeds creator Kenji Kohan’s Orange Is the New Black, a yuppie coming-of-age narrative superimposed on a story about the people who end up in prison and the tools they develop to survive there. It’s an ambitious, effective melding of genres. Incarceration gives Piper’s trajectory a jolt of immediacy and she functions as a familiar vessel through which to comprehend prison’s unfamiliar terrain. Meanwhile, the friction between Piper and her raw new situation implicitly backlights her friends’ padded, unfocused lives.
Orange Is the New Black’s central, connecting dynamic is a predictable but absorbing love triangle between Piper, her fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs), and her ex-lover, Alex (Laura Prepon), who’s being held in the same facility as Piper. Piper’s two options are patiently developed representatives of more general worldviews; we’re not asked to like these people, just to watch them and appreciate the sources of their motivations. Larry is the kind of guy who can’t stop himself from watching Mad Men while Piper’s in prison, even though she asks him to wait until she’s out so they can binge-watch together, and who later decides to publish a career-making article about Piper’s experiences without asking for her permission. Like most of Piper’s friends from outside, he’s fuzzily self-respecting, but unwilling to draw sharp lines for himself. Alex describes herself as good at running heroine and not much else; her closest approximation of an ideal existence, when she manages to think past her prison term, is doing ecstasy on a beach in Cambodia. She’s intelligent but uneducated (“No moolah, no schoolah,” she says), with the instincts of a pragmatist, but without a strategy—a striking and emotionally direct person who may have closed off too many options for a workable future.
Unfortunately, the writers get swamped by the show’s multiple subplots, not only losing sight of the essential Piper-Larry-Alex arc, but of Piper altogether. What’s on offer in the early episodes are too-broad caricatures and over-determined dialogue. Piper’s fellow inmates appear to have landed in prison for gestures of nobility that happen to be crimes (killing a sexual predator, chaining oneself to a flagpole at a nuclear test site) or tragic acts of negligence (shooting an eight-year-old boy you drunkenly thought might be a deer invading your weed garden). The yuppie lifestyle is predictably needled, but mostly without making a serious incision. Piper’s mother visits her in prison to remind her that “you’re nothing like these people,” allowing Piper to deliver the predictable rebuke demonstrating personal growth. Later we see Piper explaining her secularism to Tiffany (Taryn Manning, eerily channeling a personality that invites contempt and fear), a born-again fundamentalist who hates, and conflates, Piper’s privilege and secularism. Piper’s response is supposed to be funny, but it’s ultimately cliché: “If I had to label it, I’d say I’m a secular humanist, which is not to say I’m not spiritual.”
The sentimentalizing of experience is an easy way out of examining the reality of incarceration, and the complicated, meaningful lives of the people who face it. But while it’s not apparent that the show’s personalities add up to anything more than themselves at first, they ultimately prove to be compelling studies of people trying to work through glaring mistakes and obvious limitations to fashion some sort of livable present. What the series offers about these figures isn’t compassion so much as earned awareness. “Remember all their faces, remember all their voices,” sings Regina Spektor in the opening credits, and, by the end of the season, we do.