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“Reality” TV? Why We Like “Orange Is the New Black”

Orange is the New Black Cast Promo

I keep running into Orange Is the New Black. Netflix released the show over the summer to generally fantastic reviews and its popularity just continues to soar. My friends admit to binge watching, my colleagues are obsessed, and my Facebook newsfeed is filled with posts like, “I told my 3 year old, it’s time for you to go to bed. Mama and Daddy have a show to watch …” Speculation has it that Netflix’s new original programming, led by Orange, has helped the company update its image, increase its subscriber base, and raise stock prices.

So what is it about this show? It’s certainly got a great premise. Whole Foods eating, artisan soap making, Brooklyn dwelling, engaged to a nice Jewish boy, Piper (played by Taylor Schilling), gets sentenced to 15 months in prison. Her crime dates back 10 years to those carefree days after college, when she traveled the world with her drug cartel employed lesbian lover, and, oops, agreed to carry a suitcase full of drug money out of an airport. Orange exhibits the strong storytelling that we’ve come to expect from the show’s creator, Jenji Kohan (who also brought audiences Weeds), combined with the street cred of being based on the real life experiences of Piper Kerman. The show also boasts an incredible ensemble cast, featuring a diverse group of actresses who look like normal women, which is refreshing for television.

But, there’s something fresh and edgy about this show that goes beyond its plotlines or diversity. Could it be that, as much as it offers viewers a fictionalized look at life in a women’s prison, with all the requisite fantasy, Orange manages to feel relevant? The writing, full of storytelling punch, also explores a series of issues that reflect the current interests of our society. Underneath the frothy TV drama there’s a lot to unpack.

Orange is the New Black scene

An encounter with Pornstache.

There’s no better place to dive in than Orange’s setting: prison. Another prison show, you ask? But is that a coincidence or can we hypothesize that Americans are interested in prison stories because it’s part of our current national conversation? Supermax prisons, the California prison hunger strike, Herman Wallace and the Angola Three, the US incarceration rate, racial disparity in prisons- the list goes on and on. We are curious and, as Orange proves, successful programming responds to our curiosity.

As we get to know the inner workings of Litchfield Penitentiary, we discover that the leadership is riddled with corruption. Authority figures grope and bully inmates, steal money, etc. We watch as Correction Officer Mendez, played by Pablo Schreiber, exchanges drugs for blow jobs, eventually even covering up an inmate’s overdose to make it look like a suicide. None of this is shocking to the viewer. The concept of corrupt prison officials misusing authority is not unique to Orange. Undeniably, prison is a rough place. But why does the abuse of power we see on the show feel so routine and inevitable? What does that reaction say about where we are as a society? Our news media is constantly updating us on the realities of post-9/11 America with stories of spying on citizens, persecution of whistle blowers, racial profiling, Wall Street corruption, etc. At a time when trust in our leadership is something most Americans question, the misconduct Orange explores makes the viewer nod in recognition. Part of the realism we sense in the corruption portrayed on the show comes from Orange reflecting back our mindset as a nation; our questions about the way things are run not only in our prisons, but also in our country.

A Scene from Orange is the New Black

Laverne Cox as Sophia Burset

At a time when the battle for gay marriage is being fought state-by-state and issues of sexuality and gender identity have been introduced into the national conversation through public figures such as Chelsea Manning, Orange’s exploration of sexuality and gender identity seems valid, and more than that, important. Some of the women we meet through the show are straight, others bisexual, many are lesbians. Some, like Piper through her rekindled romance with Alex, played by Laura Prepon, explore one thing but identify as another. We’ve seen lesbians on TV before; it’s the recognition that sexuality can be more complex and ambiguous that feels current. The inclusion of a transgender character, Sophia, played by a transgender actress, Laverne Cox, is another win for the show. Sophia’s storyline is as complex as it is heartbreaking and shines a light on some of the challenges and choices transgender individuals may face. Through its characters, Orange illustrates it doesn’t matter what side of the ideological fence we’re on; we will feel the timeliness of these stories. They speak to the issues our society is grappling with now.

So there you have it folks: rich, meaty content served with a healthy side of sex, comedy, and drama. Orange Is the New Black is currently available for binge watching on Netflix with season 2 slated to air in 2014.

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Shannon Sonenstein Sonrouille

Shannon Sonenstein Sonrouille