Hello readers and welcome to the (long delayed) third entry of the Netflix series. This idea branched out of my need to add more overall artistic perspective to the blog. (If you want to catch up, here are the first two posts on BoJack Horseman and Black Mirror.) This time I took on the show that blew up the streaming network but also proved that a very solid series can be built on an unconventional memoir: Orange is the New Black.
It’s pretty doubtful you haven’t heard of this show, given the monumental attention it has received in the era of Golden Television. And right away I have to agree: this is the best television show I have ever seen, full stop. The character work alone by the talented directors and producers (not to mention the phenomenal acting performances) sealed the deal for me by the very first season. If I did have some issues with the series it was in reading the memoir by Piper Kerman.
The show and the memoir are quite different, and it was the alterations that affected me the most. At the risk of spoiling some parts of the show I will list a few. Kerman had a devoted partner who stuck with her the entire time she shifted among multiple women’s correctional facilities. In the show he’s depicted by Jason Biggs (in a standout performance) and ends up having an affair with Piper’s best friend. He does make some appearances toward the end when she gets back out of prison, but I kind of wished they would have shown how in real life he supported her through all of this. There is a well-known character from the series played by Uzo Aduba (“Crazy Eyes”) who is quite altered from the memoir, and some of the subplots specific to the show don’t quite pan out.
Another major difference that I thought made the show much stronger was the concept of taking the characters into various other forms of prison. First this is done based on the memoir, when the real Piper was transferred to a facility in Chicago where she runs into the person who named her and sent her to jail (in the show she’s a sort of amalgam character played by the amazing Laura Prepon). This sequence is lifted right from the book as we follow the “diesel therapy” plane trip into the unknown. And there is an outstanding episode in the first season where the show version of Piper gets sent to solitary confinement. But this is done much better later in the series, where the fictional version of the prison is privatized, leading to new guards that then cannot control the outbreak of a riot over the death of a black prisoner. I won’t spoil the aftermath but will just say that it ends up with the remaining characters in the maximum security unit, which the real-life Piper learned about through interactions with those that did time there. And in the final season I thought a great choice was made to show the sheer brutality of the ICE prisons and the impoverished deportation machine.
There are many more examples, but while you might not find it necessary to read the book this series is based from, they are quite dissimilar in some key ways. For the most part I tried to understand why certain choices were made by the stand-out crew that put this show together (starting with Jenji Kohan, and to be fair Piper Kerman was a consultant throughout) and how it affected the narrative. For the most part, I think it gave me some insight into how a series based on a book can work in some standout ways.
Not only is this one of the first shows to have a dominant POC/non-binary cast of females and/or LGBTQ in its cast, with most male characters either asshole guards or ineffective beuracrats, although that evolves over time. The series also does not shy away from the most brutal of topics that Kerman’s memoir explores: the sheer dehumanization of these prisoners by the guards and the system, the ways in which they manage to band together through their common humanity, and how they make it through their time there. I also have to praise the concept of pulling the few real-life details of the women Kerman met in Danbury to construct some incredible, memorable characters. Alongside Prepon, Natasha Lyonne gives the best performance of the series as a Brooklyn junkie that (I’m pretty sure) is based on a character from the memoir. And the black women Kerman met (“Taystee” on the series; “Delicious” in the memoir as one example) were already interesting and the series gives the characters rich lives of their own, despite showing the challenges they face (homelessness, few economic prospects, city structures that oppress them) in unflinching detail.
Overall I can’t recommend this series enough if you’re looking for a provocative watch as we live through historical times. To understand the “justice” and “correctional” systems is to understand how they oppress marginalized communities, and this is the first series I have come across that presents that in such an important, empathetic manner.
I plan to write about a few more Netflix programs in this series, the next being Stranger Things. And if you live in the Twin Cities, please stay safe out there tonight. Thanks for reading.
John Abraham is an author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. This blog is his attempt to catalog all the events that culminate a local writer's life.