Women in prison is not a new subject, but Orange is the New Black certainly has a new spin on it. The new Netflix series, premiering all of its episodes Thursday, July 11, is based on a memoir from Piper Kerman, who was a Smith College grad that ended up in prison for transporting drug money once 10 years prior. When the government found her, she was engaged and living happily in Brooklyn, two years from the statute of limitations on such a charge. Unfortunately for her, she was named by someone in the drug ring, which her ex-girlfriend was a part of. That’s the whole reason she got into this mess in the first place.
The Netflix series was written and created by Weeds‘ Jenji Kohan, which means its just as funny as it is sad, a dark comedy that is all-around enjoyable as well as hard-hitting emotionally. There are a lot of changes from the book, aka Piper Kerman’s real life story, but they do the show justice, giving us different perspectives from Piper’s surrounding inmates.
“Piper [Kerman] reads the scripts and she – we e-mail a lot,” Jenji said during a conference call last week. “Most of her comments on the more technical – this wouldn’t happen, this is against the rules, this and that. She’s been extremely respectful of our, you know, taking her story and then veering left with it and taking it in its own direction. But you know, I always want her involved because she’s the mother of all this.”
Jenji also noted that Piper, the character, is sort of a pawn in how viewers can meet all the different kinds of characters and people we might not meet as readily on other kinds of series.
“I love that our way in was this kind of yuppie white girl story, because if you go to a network and you say, ‘I want to talk about Latinos and blacks and their prison experience and the cycle of poverty,’ it’s not going to be a big sale because you can kind of write in on Piper and then expand the world and tell everyone’s story,” Jenji said. “It’s a great Trojan horse to a certain extent.”
It also happens to be a great way to explore queer stories. The first scene of the entire show is Piper (played expertly by Taylor Schilling) dancing sexily for her girlfriend Alex (Laura Prepon) in their bedroom. Piper is bisexual, and although her in-laws and friends refer to this as her “lesbian phase,” it’s clear that Piper is a free spirit, someone who likes fun, adventure and people who excite her. Now that she’s a little bit older in present day, that simply doesn’t include dating someone who is involved with international drug trafficking.