The Binge List: Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black tops most bingers’ lists. The beauty for bingers is that it arrives all at once. It’s like a great big novel that you lose yourself in for hours at a time — not to mention that each episode is actually an hour long and not 46 minutes.

I resisted OITNB for months even though everyone I knew kept saying how great it was. My own envy got in the way of this pleasurable and decadent video feast. You see, I’d written a novel based on my own experiences in a woman’s prison and I had only just finished a screenplay based on said novel, but mine was not the one discovered by Jenji Kohan. Finally, I got over myself and started watching it and kept watching it until I had devoured Season 1. When Season 2 arrived, I held off again. Not out of envy this time, but because I had to wait for the perfect weekend so I could lock myself in my chamber and devote my full attention to the show without distractions.

The most pleasing aspect of the series to me is the justice done to the incarcerated woman. These characters are so much like the women I have known, and yet they are fully individuals in their own right. They have dreams. They make mistakes. They want more than anything else to be loved. Many people believe that only lowlifes go to prison. And when you tell them you were in a women’s prison, they ask really stupid questions like, “Did they cut up the hotdogs so women wouldn’t use them to…you know?” (Umm, no.)

Orange is the New Black plays on the stereotypes and busts them wide open. The characters, like many women in prison, come from all walks of life: a former track star, a college girl, a military “brat,” a rich girl with a crappy home life, a business woman, and so on. And, yes, some of them come directly from the streets.

Seeing their back stories sometimes evokes pity, but more often anger. Is prison really the only place for these women, you wonder. When Taystee gets out but can’t make it, the blame falls directly on our criminal justice system, which doesn’t prepare prisoners for life outside. Oh, sure, you can get on your punitive high horse and ask why should we help “criminals” at all? Well, I could write a dissertation to answer that question, but suffice it to say: because it will cut down on crime and create a more robust society.

This past weekend I went to a panel on Orange is the New Black at the Austin Film Festival. It was a fascinating look into the making of the program. Two writers for the show were on the panel, and they said that because the episodes came out all at once, the event was a little anti-climactic. I mean, when shows dribble out one at a time, then followers watch and comment on each episode at roughly the same time. But they didn’t seem too upset about the fact that we were all binging on the show. Better than not having any watchers at all. I mean, they are working on a ground-breaking series that’s got the whole country talking about steamy sex scenes and, even more importantly, about more mundane things like prison reform. What could be more exciting?

Of course, OITNB exaggerates some aspects of prison life, but no one would watch a show that showed you how boring it really is. Still, it has captured an essential truth of our penal system and that is this: those are human beings we’ve locked up by the millions. And what we do to them, we do also to their families, and by extension we do to ourselves as well.

If you’re curious about my book, there are some copies available on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/From-May-December-Pat-MacEnulty/dp/1852424656. This book was published in Britain a few years ago and is out of print right now, but I’m currently shopping an updated version to American publishers. I’ll keep you posted.

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