Orange is the New Black
by Fiona Crawford - June 5th, 2014
Piper Kerman’s Orange is the New Black (ONB) story popped up on my radar first via podcast, then about a year later via a TV series. Finally, as is increasingly happening for me, I’m just now getting around to reading the book—a complete reversal of my usual philosophy.
The podcast was storytelling show The Moth, which encourages people to stand up and tell stories on a theme and without the aid of notes.
Kerman’s tale was of how she, as a conservative, university-educated woman from a stable, loving family, and who is now in her 30s and engaged, found herself spending just over a year in a correctional facility. In a boundary-testing younger life, she’d gotten caught up in carrying drug money across borders. Once.
Her story—which we find out at the end of the podcast segment has been turned into a memoir and that we now best known as a TV show—documents just what it’s like to have your youthful foolishness catch up with you. And what it means for you to enter a penal system you’d never imagined you’d need to.
I remember thinking at the podcast-listening time that Kerman was a sophisticated storyteller; that I’d love to hear more about her experience in jail. I even added her memoir to my list of must-get-round-to-reading books. Then Netflix picked up the story and produced a TV series from it, and ONB lobbed back into my consciousness—and, based on its success, a whole heap of other peoples’ too.
I won’t claim the series is without the odd plot flaw or fault, but I will say it’s excellent and compelling. Like Prisoner, the series to which it’s arguably most comparable, it has some fantastic storylines and some fantastically interesting, well-developed female characters. Not least Kerman as the lead.
Renamed inmate #11187-424 upon self-surrendering at the Connecticut facility at which she’s to spend the next 15 months, Kerman has to quickly learn both the prison and social ropes—ropes where she’s equal parts favoured and despised, depending on whose perspective you’re considering.
What’s immediately apparent is that Kerman is beautiful and educated. This stint in jail is a mere speed bump that will (as it has) make for a good story in her otherwise pretty solidly founded life. That’s what provides this story both its hook and its conflict.
ONB is a breakout show that’s achieved just about what every show would hope: It was created with little hype and a modest budget, but with plenty of focus on script development and rich acting (and props to Netflix for venturing into this non-traditional territory).
The result is a show that hefts in terms of both character development and commercial success, with fans like me dying to know more about the characters whose storylines are slowly doled out and hankering for Season 2 to start.
For instance, what will be the consequences of the Season 1 finale, which (spoiler alert) saw Kerman in a scuffle? Ok, it was more than a scuffle—she was fighting for her life after another inmate, a born-again Christian convert who feels she’s a conduit to God, attacked her with a razor.
What will become of her ex-girlfriend now-girlfriend Alex? What of her fiancé, awaiting her release and increasingly beginning to struggle with how their paths are diverging? And will we see more of Crazy Eyes, Red, and the rest of the characters who bring warmth and depth and humour in often surprising measures?
My understanding is that the series has departed a little from the book. Kerman’s former real-life girlfriend, who was the reason Kerman got caught up in the money laundering and subsequent jail time, has said the TV series-based love life aspects, for example, are vastly overblown. All of which entices me further to read Kerman’s memoir, if only to discern the points of departure.
Of course, I’m also hoping to obtain more kernels of insight into each character’s history and motivations. What circumstances led them to prison and how much of it was and is within their control? Can you break out of that prison cycle once you’re caught up in it? And is punishing rather than rehabilitating people really the way to go?
Because that’s arguably what makes Kerman’s story so haunting, relatable, and compelling: But for some misfortune in the birth lottery or some poorly considered decisions with huge and snowballing consequences, any one of us could be Kerman or one of her cellmates.
Season 2 of ONB purportedly kicks off on 6 June. I’m not yet sure how that figures in Australia, where I can’t see it on Foxtel or via iTunes. If you know to obtain it legally, by all means, please comment below.