Orange Is the New Black premieres all episodes of its second season on Friday, June 6. Plot specifics aside, if the message of the next iteration of the critically acclaimed Netflix drama is anything like the first, there’s one takeaway we can look forward to, and it’s this:
Criminals are people, too. Sometimes they’re white people. And if it takes a narrative centered on a prissy blond woman to lure the viewer into feeling empathy for the lives of characters of color—the ones society has so many more stereotypes about and so much less compassion for—then so be it.
This is what makes Jenji Kohan’s adaptation of real-life prison survivor Piper Kerman’s novel, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, which loosely inspires the Netflix drama, so powerful—and what makes me call it a “black show.”
As the show starts, Piper—a syrupy-sweet Jen Aniston type sharing nude shower time with gruff, hardened women who are (gasp) minorities—is “othered” from the rest of the inmates. The series is unflinching on many levels, but it relies on the fact that preppy Piper doesn’t have much life experience with blacks and Latinos—especially not ones who seem to her (not to mention many viewers) to be so untethered and dangerous.
By the first season’s close, however, Piper’s descent into primal madness—a jungle her friends have already adapted to—has become a very small plot point in a mass of mighty, heartbreaking stories about the racially diverse characters around her.
It becomes about them even more than it is about Piper.
It’s impressive to watch Orange gradually expand, going beyond prison walls in time-traveling fashion as it explores each of these characters’ backstories, juxtaposing the people they used to be with the people they have become.
Without OITNB, we’d be starved for nuanced stereotype-shattering depictions of these complex black and brown characters. It’s actors like Laverne Cox (who plays the transgender woman Sophia and arguably the show’s breakout star), Uzo Aduba (the woman behind “Crazy Eyes” Suzanne), Samira Wiley (Poussey) and Danielle Brooks (Taystee) who make Orange so irresistible. Each of their characters’ pasts exposes jarring truths about the black experience, in a script sharply penned by Kohan.
Few shows on TV bother to humanize black women, and still fewer care to humanize women whom society has deemed villains. But none of the women of OITNB, according to Kohan’s script, are true criminals. Some are products of unforgiving environments. Many were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Most are kindhearted souls with fierce hearts and the fatal flaw of a too-eager temper. Orange’s first season shines when all these various pasts and presents collide to create unforgettable moments of honesty and contemplation: Who am I? How did I get here? And who can I become?
Orange Is the New Black is a show very loosely about crime, and completely a show about consequence. It harshly examines women whose decisions and surroundings haven’t served them well; and as society often points out all too eloquently, most of those in our prison system are minorities. But Kohan manages to communicate what most ignore: The wrongdoers, no matter their race, have value. Just as women who typically have it easy in America are capable of crime, women who don’t are deserving of redemption.