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27 December 2016

Orange Is the New Black shows what internet television can do

By Bernardine Evaristo

Set in a women’s prison in America, Orange Is the New Black is a drama based on a memoir by Piper Kerman about her time spent inside for money laundering. This explains why the first series, at least, focuses on a middle-class white New Yorker, Piper Chapman, who is from the demographic least likely to end up in a federal penitentiary. I found this off-putting at first but the series is so good in so many ways that I soon overlooked it. Eventually, the character of Piper (Taylor Schilling) grew on me as she changed from someone used to comfort and privilege into a badass ball-breaker intent on flouting the rules of her imprisonment.

The series is exceptional because – in a world where most television dramas have more male than female characters – it features a predominantly female cast who exist in a micro-universe of woman-centredness. Female power play is amplified, their relationships are intensified and lesbianism is a significant motif (there is plenty of graphic sex). Nor is the cast made up of the usual pretty, skinny sylphs who are allowed to grace our screens. These are normal-looking actors who are fantastically talented and individual.

The drama unfolds through a stream of backstories segued with events in the present day. It’s beautifully done: the hothouse inside the jail, the social pressures outside of it. A case in point is Tasha Jefferson (played by Danielle Brooks), who has the main storyline in season two. Clever, funny, lovable and raised in the care system, she is inside for dealing drugs, for a mother figure who groomed her into it. Once she is released, her living options are so dismal that prison seems preferable and she deliberately violates her probation.

Not only do we see how the cards are stacked against many of the women – black, Hispanic, crackhead, hillbilly – but we get to understand how they have learned to survive. They are not all victims, but even the prison’s powerful matriarch, Red (Kate Mulgrew), a Russian mobster, is initially coerced into what becomes a life of crime.

We also see the injustices of the US justice system and the corporatisation of incarceration. My one caveat is that some of the black women initially err towards pantomime-type performance. However, as the series evolves, they become some of the most complex characters.

Netflix pushes the boundaries with its original dramas, and the internet allows amazing shows such as this one to find their global audience.