Orange is the new black (TV show and memoir)

Orange is the new black Seasons 1 & 2, created by Jenji Kohan (Netflix, 2013-2014).

Orange is the new black: My year in a women’s prison, by Piper Kerman (2010).

Score: Very well-balanced dramedy.

We’re all really used to jail dramas featuring men. Prison Break, Cool Hand Luke, The Great Escape. We are all very aware of how much prison sucks for men, but women prisons have not been so prominently in the spotlight, until now. With a mostly female cast and extraordinarily racially diverse characters, Orange is the new black must be Tumblr’s wet dream (true social justice warriors will probably find it still very privileged). It passes the Bechdel test in like thirty seconds!

Blonde, upper-middle class Piper Chapman is sentenced to a year in prison for having carried a suitcase of drug money for her drug-dealing lover Alex Vause, once. The show follows her adventures trying to do her time in a minimum security prison, with multiple arcs involving relationships between the inmates and with the guards. Almost every episode will focus on a particular inmate and eventually two or three different arcs will be developing at the same time. The moderate use of flashbacks was much appreciated and contributed to a light pacing.

This has to be a characters show. Virtually all of them are so three-dimensional and endearing, with their skeletons in the wardrobe and their redeeming virtues, and their interactions are very cleverly written. It’s not exactly a comedy, because there’s really nothing funny about seeing people being dehumanized by a flawed and pointless correctional system, but you’re going to laugh. Because sometimes that’s the best thing you can do, and the characters know it.

It’s based on the memoirs of the real Piper, Piper Kerman, who lived a very similar story. The book has much less drama: Alex/Nora didn’t go to the same prison as Piper, the arc with Daya is not there and Vee isn’t either (such a well-written villain, by the way), and even though Kerman describes contraband and abuse from COs, it’s not as extreme as what you see on the show, but hey, you came here for some drama. They’re things that could totally happen, even if they are not described in the book in detail. But the environment, the spirit is exactly the same, some dialogue is lifted word from word and some characters are transplanted, and in general they are similar and complementary experiences.

The show is definitely recommended, and the book is nice if you’re looking for the original approach and want to know how much of it is real (spoiler alert: a lot), but it’s not as entertaining and sometimes along the middle it drags around a bit.

Be ready to be outraged at the unfairness and callousness of the prison system! Am I my brother’s keeper and shit, man.