Orange Is the New Black: Can a Women-in-Prison Sitcom Succeed?


“What happened to your hair?”

“I had to give it to a transvestite so she could make a weave.”

Yes, these are the kinds of dialogues you have when you spend time in prison, or at least that's what Netflix tells us.

Prison. The Big House.  This is the setting for Netflix’s newest original series, Orange Is the New Black. Who cares about vampires anymore? We want prison shows! Piper Chapman is the main character—a reformed, wealthy blonde whose past catches up with her. That “past” being her former lesbian lover (played by the actress who portrayed “Donna” in That '70s Show) who snitches on her for her involvement with an international drug cartel.

Piper and her fiancé (played by Jason Biggs of American Pie fame) decide that she should just surrender and serve the 15-month prison sentence. This is where all hell breaks loose.

Imagine an ex-sorority girl going to the wasteland that is prison: full of foot fungus, delusional inmates, sleazy guards, and, worst of all, ORANGE jumpsuits. This is the world Piper must enter for 15 months. As an audience member, you’re secretly terrified for her.

I watched the first three episodes this weekend. Between cups of water and stops to grab snacks, I attempted to explain to my roommate what I was watching. “There’s this transvestite and he—no, she—she?  Was a NYC firefighter and then he? got a sex change, but now she’s in prison with Piper. This other woman is related to the Russian mafia. ... Piper smuggled money for her ex-girlfriend’s drug ring in Brussels ten years prior to her being arrested. ... There’s this crazy woman in there too…”

You can imagine the mix of confusion and interest.

I was thinking later, how do I even explain this show to people? It's especially hard because I don’t have much in common with the main character.  For starters, 1) I’m not a transvestite, 2) I'm not a lesbian, 3) I have never been locked up or taken to jail—although there was this time in college when four cop cars showed up… (another story) and 4) I don’t engage in illegal activities that would lead to my interaction with unsavory characters.