A television series by streaming video service Netflix about a middle-class white woman learning to get by in a women’s prison has slowly and quietly become a smash hit in America.
“Orange is The New Black” — a “dramedy” based on a best-selling autobiography with the same title — has earned gushingly positive reviews, with Rolling Stone magazine praising it as “utterly brilliant.”
Esquire magazine says it is the best new television show right now and “reveals the possibilities of a new form, perhaps a new genre.”
The series depicts the interactions and conflicts of blacks, Latinas, whites and Asians forced to live together in prison.
Lead character Piper Chapman, played by Taylor Schilling, is a well-to-do married New Yorker who makes a living fashioning organic soaps.
But she is sentenced to 15 months in jail for a mistake she made 10 years earlier: she served as a money courier for a sexy female drug dealer named Alex (Laura Prepon), with whom she had a brief affair.
“In a lot of ways, Piper was my Trojan Horse,” series creator Jenji Kohan said recently on National Public Radio.
“You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals.”
“But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories,” she added.
“The girl next door, the cool blonde, is a very easy access point,” said Kohan, who also created the hit Showtime series “Weeds.”
Kohan has won praise in particular for flashbacks that take the action out of the prison and tell the personal stories of the inmates.
She also has earned high marks for the authenticity of her characters: women who are overweight, wrinkled and otherwise not the kind of women generally seen in starring roles on television.
Dominican actress Dascha Polanco, who plays a Latina prisoner named Dayanara, says it is rare to see a TV program about women, made by women and that does not define women in terms of relationships with boyfriends, husbands, family or children.
“In that sense, ‘Orange’ breaks new ground. It is not about a woman and her house with her children and her husband. It speaks of a reality,” Polanco told AFP.
She said she was grateful to the series for allowing her to overcome the stigma of not being stick-thin in an industry in which thin is everything.
For Piper Kerman, author of the memoirs published in 2010 and on which the series is very loosely based, one of the main challenges upon going to jail is “to figure out is where you fit in in the social ecology of the prison.”
“When you are first setting foot into this unit, this strange new community which you’ll be living in, race is a really powerful organizing principle,” Kerman, who was 24 when she carried the money-laden suitcase in 1993, told NPR.
“What I found was that, over time, it was less and less important. My work assignment in the electric shop was not made along racial lines. I had co-workers who were black and Latina and Asian,” said Kerman, who defines herself as a former lesbian.
She started doing her time in 2004 in a minimum security jail in Danbury, Connecticut. Since then she has become an outspoken advocated for female inmates and sits on the board of the Women’s Prison Association.
“Orange” saw its debut last month without the hype that has accompanied other original series created by Netflix such as “House of Cards” starring Kevin Spacey, or “Arrested Development”, which already had a solid fan base thanks to previous seasons on Fox.
Both made history in July by becoming the first online series to earn nominations for the Emmys, the US television awards. “House of Cards” is nominated in nine categories and “Arrested Development” in three.
Referring to “House of Cards”, Rolling Stone predicted last week that “Orange”, which debuted after the Emmy eligibility period had ended, “will have just as many nominations as its big brother in 2014”.