As the third season arrives, it’s worth reflecting upon how far Orange Is The New Black has come.
The show is based on a best-selling memoir by Piper Kerman of the same name, and many of the broad plot details remain the same. We first meet Piper (Taylor Schilling), when she is in her early thirties. She is a white, upper middle-class, liberal arts graduate who runs her own successful business selling luxury toiletries, and has just got engaged to her boyfriend.
But there is a cloud on the horizon. A drug-trafficking offence from ten years ago has finally caught up with her, and she has been served a custodial sentence.
Quickly, a wonderfully rich and original world of character at Lichfield Penitentiary comes to the fore. There is a host of forceful, dynamic and complex women; damaged, devious, morally ambiguous, neither clear victims or villains. A large proportion of them, black, Latina, gay, are characterisations heretofore largely under-represented on mainstream television.
The show has wider social resonances too. It’s depictions of the endemic corruption inside the institution, and the many dehumanising privations, which compromise the women’s safety and security.
And the characters complex back-stories speak volumes too. Each character study is fleshed out with details about the particular familial, economic, and emotional conditions which have ultimately led to incarceration – and so we see lives unfolding and buckling under a litany of bad starts, desperate measures and questionable choices.