“You’re a first-time offender with a short sentence, and you’re white,” says Natalie Figueroa (Alysia Feiner), the warden in “Orange is the New Black.”
She’s talking about Piper Chapman (Taylor Schiling), a white, middle-class, college-educated, recently engaged 30-something-year-old — which is also the prescribed audience binge-watching the new 13-episode Netflix original television drama.
But while Piper may be an anomaly in prison, she’s someone viewers can relate to — the type of person who watches “Mad Men,” listens to NPR’s “This American Life,” reads “The New York Times,” and tries the Master Cleanse, a 10-day lemonade and pepper diet designed to flush out your system.
That’s the lens creator Jenji Kohan give us to view her fascinating and addictive prison drama, “Orange is the New Black.”
Based on Piper Kerman’s memoir, “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison,” the show follows Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), who’s engaged to her journalist boyfriend Larry Bloom (Jason Biggs). Chapman lands in Litchfield Correctional Facilities for 15 months after her connection in her ex’s drug operation becomes revealed almost a decade later.
Her ex happens to be Alex Vause (Laura Prepon, who played Donna from “That ’70s Show”), a lesbian heroin dealer who Chapman had a relationship with during her experimental post-college phase. And Alex Vause happens to be sentenced to the same female prison Chapman’s stuck at for the next 15 months.
For the liberal, college-educated middle-class audience following Piper’s journey, watching “Orange is the New Black” is like reading Nellie Bly’s New York World exposé, “Ten Days in a Mad-House.” The appeal is that we’re voyeurs to the sensationalism: getting starved for insulting the chef’s food, getting feet fungus from showers, being made someone’s prison wife and almost being killed. Oh, the horror!
Only Kohan’s pilot 13-episode season chronicles more than 10 days. It takes us through weeks and months, Thanksgivings and Christmases, births and deaths. All the while, time stays still. A day in solitary confinement can last nine months to a year. The lights never turn off; there’s no way of recording the passage of time.
No human contact or touch can make anyone crazy.
And if you’re crazy enough, you’re sent to the psych ward — where they strap you down and administer sedatives until you lose whatever sanity you may have left. No one get’s out of the psych ward.
Prison, Kohan’s drama narrates, is about survival. And surviving in Litchfield is like surviving “Girl World” and the high school drama and pettiness in “Mean Girls.”
And in “Girl World,” there are rules: everyone uses last names; you clean everything with maxi pads; you don’t eat the pudding; and the second you’re perceived as weak, you already are.
Chlamydia talks are replaced by suicide watches. The lessons are the same though: don’t do it.
Then there are cliques — your whites, blacks, Hispanics, Golden Girls and others: Red (Kate Mulgrew), the Russian honcho of the kitchen; Miss. Claudette (Michelle Hurst), who’s rumored to have murdered people and to have run a sex trade; Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett (Taryn Manning), a religious fanatic who thinks she’s performing the work of the Lord Jesus Christ; and “Crazy Eyes” (Uzo Aduba), who’s the only one to survive the psych ward and come back.
An eccentric, excitable and memorable ensemble cast of characters walks the halls of Litchfield. And through a series of flashbacks, Kohan has fleshed out their stories.
Women can be cruel, but there’s no Nurse Ratched in “Orange is the New Black,” which at times, resembles Zack Snyder’s “Sucker Punch” more than Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over A Cuckoo’s Nest.” As intimidating as these bands of inmates are, the oppressive jailors are still a bunch of incompetent, racist and misogynistic pigs.
Counselor Sam Healy (Michael Harney) may act like a sweet old grandpa with a Russian mail-order bride, but he’s got a vendetta against gays. Meanwhile, Officer Mendez (Pablo Schreiber) perpetuates drug trafficking in prison, bartering pills for blowjobs while condoning rape.
Kohan makes sure you remember that humans live behind these bars. They, too, want love and laughter, chasing after parole like that elusive great white whale. And while life’s a cruel mistress, shuffling you from cell to cell, assignment to assignment, you can’t help but hope. One day, you’ll settle your debts. You’ll travel the globe. You’ll fly across that barb-wired fence. You’ll get out of prison. And somehow, tomorrow will be better. Now if you can only get through today… and the next 15 months.