In Orange Is the New Black, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), is privileged and educated. She’s an NPR-listening, Mad Men-watching, big-city-dwelling, wise-cracking intellectual. She’s just like “us,” in other words. And none of “us” would ever expect to go to prison.
As is to be expected from a show based on a memoir, Chapman remains at the center of the story throughout the series, but the lens opens out to look at the lives of the other women in the Litch as well. Thanks to liberal use of flashbacks, we come to understand how they came to be behind bars—though we don’t necessarily pity or even sympathize with them. Sophia Burset, a former firefighter who turned to crime to pay for a sex change and to buy the love of her son, is lovable, smart, and caring, but she’s also obscenely selfish. Only a couple of inmates—and several of the prison staff—are completely unsympathetic. None are entirely clichéd.
Of course, Orange Is the New Black has its share of relationship drama, interpersonal conflict, danger, love, and betrayal. It’s gloriously soapy and genuinely moving. Who knew that the story of strangers learning to live together could be so entertaining? Actually, we all knew that. But it’s rarely done this intelligently or this well.