Back behind Bars... for Orange is the New Black
Series 3 of the award-winning prison drama Orange is the New Black arrives on Netflix next week. Julia Molony prepares to binge
'It's just like the Hamptons, only f**king horrible." So says inmate Nicky Nicols - ex-junkie and compulsive-seducer of women, to Piper Chapman, blonde middle-class WASP and the newest inmate to arrive at Lichfield Penitentiary in Series 1 of Orange is The New Black.
And thus Piper is initiated into her brand new life inside a women's prison. As Netflix prepares to release Season 3, Orange Is The New Black remains the undisputed jewel in the crown of the video-on-demand platform's original programming portfolio. Sure, House of Cards may be noisier - with global stars in its cast and literary ambitions, but critical responses to the last two series have been decidedly mixed. Orange in the New Black, however has barely hit a bum note yet, to the delight of fans and critics.
The show is based on a best-selling memoir by Piper Kerman of the same name, and many of the broad plot details remain the same. We first meet Piper, played by Taylor Schilling, when she is in her early thirties. She is a white, upper middle-class, liberal arts graduate who runs her own successful business selling luxury toiletries, and has just got engaged to her boyfriend, a bookish Jewish journalist. But there is a cloud on the horizon. A drug-trafficking offence from ten years ago has finally caught up with her, and she has been served a custodial sentence.
Back when she was in her mid-twenties, Piper became involved in a passionate and, as it turns out, life-changing affair with another woman, who happens to have criminal connections. She makes the mistake of agreeing to transport drugs at her girlfriend's request. Fast forward several years and her girlfriend has named Piper as her accomplice as part of a plea-bargain deal. So Piper must take a hiatus from her now-conventional new life and go directly to jail. The strength of the show lies in it's scalpel-sharp script and daring and unconventional approach to character. Instead of a simple fish-out-of-water narrative, focussing on the perspective of a privileged princess who finds herself at sea in a rough, bewildering new world, Orange presents us with a much more complex and intriguing landscape.
Quickly, a wonderfully rich and original world of character at Lichfield Penitentiary comes to the fore, a host of forceful, dynamic and complex women; damaged, devious, morally ambiguous, neither clear victims or villains. A large proportion of them, black, Latina, gay, are characterisations heretofore largely under-represented on mainstream television. In an interview shortly after the series first aired, creator and show-runner Jenji Kohan (whose previous work includes the hit show Weeds) admitted that the character of Piper Champan was, for her, a sort of "Trojan horse. . . You're not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals. But if you take this white girl . . . and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories," she said.
The show has wider social resonances too. It's depictions of the endemic corruption inside the institution, and the many dehumanising privations which compromise the women's safety and security conveys a clear and deliberate message about penal reform. And the characters complex back-stories speak volumes too. Each character study is fleshed out with details about the particular familial, economic, and emotional conditions which have ultimately led to incarceration - and so we see lives unfolding and buckling under a litany of bad starts, desperate measures and questionable choices. As one character, Poussey dryly observes, "We're all just in here because we took a wrong turn going to church."
The complete Season 3 of Orange is The New Black is released on Netflix on June 12th
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