Sitting down to watch Netflix’s latest series “Orange is the New Black,” one might expect an overly didactic prison drama that would make you long for the first season of “The Newsroom.” What you’ll get, instead, is an instantly engrossing series that commands binge viewing.
Based on Piper Kerman's memoir of the same name and helmed by “Weeds” creator Jenji Kohan, "Orange is the New Black" chronicles Piper Chapman's fifteen-month stay in Litchfield Correctional Facility. Chapman is sent to the all-female prison after pleading guilty to smuggling drug money for international drug dealer and her then-girlfriend Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) 10 years earlier.
The series’ strength comes from the richness and depth of the world created inside the prison. In a show like this, it would be easy to depend solely on prison clichés for character development and to veer into territory held by the afternoon-special genre. Kohan, however, does quite the opposite. Each woman’s individuality is emphasized, and the viewer in turn views each of them as an actual person—not merely as a metaphor or cautionary tale.
Moreover, the other prisoners have relative independence from Chapman’s storyline and are not merely there to further her own growth—the lives of the women inside Litchfield are taken seriously and are not to be belittled.
Within the walls of Litchfield, to borrow anthropologist Christopher Nelson’s words, “the past exists uneasily alongside the present.” Employing a technique similar to that used by ABC’s “Lost,” Kohan slowly develops the arcs of the women in the prison through flashbacks. Inside Litchfield, the past is ever present and continues to complicate the women’s lives and current relationships.
Kohan’s thoughtful use of flashbacks shows that Chapman’s relationship with Alex was not merely a phase, but was a significant relationship that has continued to impact her even today. For a supporting character such as Red (Kate Mulgrew), a Russian inmate who runs the prison’s kitchen and — to a lesser extent — the prison itself, the flashbacks give depth to her character. In her first appearance, Red is a bully, but the flashbacks reveal her to be a woman who wants only to gain some respect after not having any outside prison.
The show is also strengthened by the themes' organic development from the plot. While the commentary on the American prison system is evident, it never bogs down or overshadows the plot. When the series addresses such issues as the politics of race or sexuality, it does so in a way that moves the story along.
The care with which the characters and their world is developed creates some thoroughly compelling moments and make it possible to forgive the occasional plot misstep. By the end of the final episode, one cannot help but wish for the second season to come sooner.