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Orange is the New Black: Delicious and Nutritious

By Brook Bhagat

barbed flower

I’ll admit it. I have committed to memory the date that season two of Orange is the New Black is coming out on Netflix: June 6. It’s like a good Thai dish: good hot and delicately sweet, damn spicy and soft in places yet hilariously crunchy when you least expect it. Deliciously saucy, yet with depth and nuances of flavors that you’ve never experienced before in quite this way, Orange leaves you full, yet eager for more.

Based very, very loosely on the memoir of the same title by Piper Kerman, Orange is the New Black, created by Jenji Kohan, is a new made-for-Netflix dramedy about a waspy, upper-class New Yorker whose world changes completely when she is sentenced to a year in a minimum-security women’s prison. Piper changes and grows as she learns to adapt, and slowly gains a new perspective on herself, the women around her, and the world in general.

It’s funny as hell, and it’s a graphic grownup show, no doubt, but that doesn’t stop it from being high art at the same time. Orange shines on a literary level with its use of metaphor, symbolism and parallelism. One beautiful example comes when Crazy Eyes and Piper are mopping the floor. Crazy Eyes has called Piper a mean person; she’s right, basically, but Piper tries to explain it away instead of facing herself. When Piper starts to mop, Crazy Eyes says, “You gotta start from the inside out… or else you’ll step on the clean.”

Stones like this, with ripples and echoes of meaning and imagery, mark a master storyteller. These kinds of moments sink deep into us, captivating us, making us feel more than we had given permission to feel; more than we can explain. This is why poetry has not become extinct, has not become exhausted in thousands of years. Something in our DNA, something that once sat around campfires hearing the old songs and stories at night tells us that we need to listen, that this is important. Art is capable of creating an instantaneous wormhole in the fabric of spacetime, making us feel what someone else feels. Orange is the New Black is what happens when art takes a quantum leap and becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Orange is the New Black season 2 trailer

It’s frankly refreshing to watch a program that is primarily about the relationships between women, women of all sizes and shapes and backgrounds—essentially new territory in the world of American television. Thematic scenes and episodes provide depth and contrast on a given topic, like motherhood. One prisoner, Maria, while in labor, comments on the relationship between Daya and her mother, saying that the two them are “like a cautionary tale,” with their hateful, backbiting relationship, telling Daya that the two of them should tour high schools to promote abstinence. Then we see the other birth—Piper’s best friend on the outside, who has money, a husband, and a hospital, while at Litchfield Federal, Maria isn’t even allowed to be transported to the hospital until her contractions are only a minute apart, not to mention having her baby taken away almost immediately.

Writing these scenes side-by-side does more than make for heartbreaking empathy. Maybe it makes us reflect on the inequities and injustices that have been there so long they are in danger of becoming invisible. It makes us feel compassion, and remember that all those for-profit penitentiaries are out there making money even when the rest of us aren’t thinking about it. Compassion can be painful. Worse than that, when you feel it deep enough for someone experiencing something wrong enough, it carries with it the obligation to do something to help. Even when the oppressor is not one bully, not a person, but a gang of the overlapping bullies of racism, sexism, economics, politics and the prison industry itself, a broken, crooked system with the bad guys winning all the pots. And maybe, just maybe, somebody watching feels it so deep they start a petition, or they investigate the prison in their city, or they write a letter to their senator, or they take a demand for justice to the freaking streets. It’s not preachy, it’s a story, it’s fun—but on another level, it is social commentary and it does reflect certain realities. Orange is the New Black is not just great television, with intrigue, hilarity and wild, original characters and plot twists; it is art with the power to actually inspire change in the world.

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