When Art Imitates Life and Gets It Right

“Orange is the New Black”
created by Jenji Kohan
Netflix, 51–61 min., 13 episodes

The moving Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black” is based on a memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman—the fictional Piper Chapman on the show—a highly-educated woman in her 30s who was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison for a crime she committed in her 20s at the request of her very alluring female lover.

I volunteer with female inmates in the Greater Boston area, so I was skeptical at first—especially since “Orange” was written by Jenji Kohan, the creator of Showtime’s “Weeds.” That show went so far off the rails after its first two seasons that I had to stop watching. However, after hearing some initial buzz about “Orange is the New Black,” I decided to watch.

Since making that decision, not a day goes by when I’m not thinking about the colorful, sympathetic and disparate cast of characters and what more we will learn about them in the second season.

After doing a marathon binge viewing of the show, I was very curious to ask the women I work with if the writers had gotten it right—if some of the joyful and disturbing elements of being locked up were accurate. The women I work with don’t have access to Netflix so I asked them questions about some of the things viewers see: birthday parties with dancing, secret Santas, love affairs between inmates and officers, and the occasional cruelty guards show the women. What they told me makes it seem as if “Orange” has captured their reality pretty well.

People who don’t have experience with female inmates often have a hard time sympathizing with them. They generally feel as if these women brought this on themselves and deserve what they have coming to them. They don’t have the opportunity to get to know the women, the human beings, behind the crimes.

“Orange Is the New Black” does a magnificent job of humanizing the inmates in the show. Taylor Schilling plays the lead character, Piper, with a pitch-perfect combination of fear and confidence.

We see her lovely, perfect life with her fiancé, Larry—played by the more grown-up version of the Jason Biggs we know from “American Pie”—before she self-surrenders. They are calm and determined to get through the sentence and come out as unscathed as possible. Then we see her life before Larry, as a sexy, carefree 20-something in love with a striking woman named Alex Vause—played by the sultry-voiced Laura Prepon, best known from “That 70s Show.” And, of course, as the series moves ahead we see how unlikely her and Larry’s hopes of leading “normal” lives after prison were from the beginning.

In my volunteer work, I stand in front of a new group of women every two weeks, all in the same drab uniforms. For the first few minutes, their faces look just like the 1,500 or so I’ve seen before them. They are interchangeable.

As we go through my 50-minute workshop—about the same amount of time as one episode of “Orange Is the New Black”—they become much more than faces. They are women who became addicted to painkillers in middle age. They are women who shot heroin with their parents in their teens. They are women with master’s degrees and they are mothers.

Prisons are designed to “Orange Is the New Black” transcends the tedium of tan prison uniforms and industrial and industrial walls painted in non-colors. At least one character is featured in each episode, with moving, candid glimpses into their life before incarceration. We see the vulnerabilities, the mistakes, the addictions and the normalcy of these women before they landed in prison. I have been moved to tears by each one.

–Gayle Saks

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