Society likes to remind its citizens that crime does not pay. In the case of Piper Kerman, bestselling author of Orange Is the New Black, it can reap dividends. University educated Kerman was once a money launderer and heroin trafficker for a Nigerian drug lord. Misspent youth caught up with her. Kerman was indicted for criminal conspiracy, plead guilty to a money-laundering charge and sentenced to prison. She served 13 months and published a memoir about life as a hot white girl in the American prison industrial complex. The book was well received and soon adapted as a “Netflix original series” by Jenji Kohan, the creator of hit TV show Weeds. It has gone on to become the most popular show on Netflix, and the most talked about series for women since HBO’s Sex and the City.
Square-eyed after binge watching both seasons, I have come to loathe almost everything about Orange Is the New Black. The US imprisons more women than any other nation in the world at double the rate of male offenders. 64% of female offenders do not have a high school diploma, 85% of them have a history of domestic and sexual abuse. Not that you would you know, or be interested, in disproportionate figures and wretched facts in the TV adaptation. All we get are the standards of the women-in-prison genre - rampant lesbianism, racial conflict, randy guards and administrative corruption. Imagine Ally McBeal trapped in a female clone of HBO prison soap Oz…et voilà! That’s the novelty and plot trajectory of OITNB (as it is known to its legion of newly politicized fans).
If posh female columnists are swooning over OITNB it’s only because it’s this year’s danger daydream, something to fill the fantasy gap previously and profitably filled by Fifty Shades of Grey. But it is very hard to sympathize with “Piper Chapman.” Unlike the other female inmates, Piper (played by Taylor Schilling) is a skinny binny Aryan cheerleader with dazzling white teeth. She has no children from which she is separated. No drink or drug problems. No life threatening condition or mental illness. No hardships and indignities. Piper is the belle of the bullpen with lots of support from relatives, friends and media contacts in the outside world.
Not all devils wear horns. She is also a liar, a cheat, a hypocrite, a manipulator, a money launderer, an immature narcissist, a perjurer, a know-it-all, a patronizing white cow, and yet, we the viewer are supposed to like her. Is she a hero or an anti-hero? We are not quite sure. And it is this lack of integrity that makes you question the plausibility of the drama.
The same goes for the male characters. All of whom are deeply flawed. Her fiancé, Jason Biggs of American Pie fame, is a stereotyped Jew nebbish who jerks off to lesbian porn whilst his convicted other half languishes in cockroach hell. Healy, the senior guard, and Piper’s inmate counselor, is a latent-misogynist with a trashy mail order Russian wife and a salivating interest in “inappropriate lesbian behavior.” He also has an evil streak. When a shank-wielding psychopath attacks Piper, Healy turns a blind eye.
No prison drama is worth its own salt without a prick guard who abuses his own power. Mendez is the archetype here. An opportunist freak with a bog brush mustache who trades drugs and exploits female inmates for sexual favours (season two binge marathon spoiler alert: he gets his comeuppance). Things are not much better up the chain of command, Caputo, the assistant to the warden, likes to jack off about the inmates under his charge. And whom does he “lotion up” about the mostest? Why, our heroine, of course, she’s like the hottest chick in the slammer, dude!
Though it lacks the dramatic punch and relative verisimilitude of Oz, or the humour of classic BBC sit-com Porridge; every woman with a Netflix account is gushing about the “realism” and “authenticity” of Orange Is the New Black. This is because it’s the closest that the average female viewer will ever get to experiencing life in prison. These viewers might not push for reform of the American criminal justice system but at least they are sitting up to talk about basic human rights, and the way women are mistreated in prison. Amen to that. Roll on season 3. Fade to orange.
Buy Alexander's book Convict Land: Undercover in America’s Jails here.