Along with hoards of other Netflix subscribers, I settled into my couch earlier this month to power through Orange is the Black, the much-hyped new series from the same distribution network (channel? online service? whatevs) whose House of Cards occupied the better part of my February.
For the uninitiated, OITNB is the story of Piper Chapman, a yuppie blonde whose past indiscretions–a brief stint smuggling drug money–come back to haunt her when her erstwhile lady lover/cartel supervisor (?) sells her out to the cops almost a decade later. In the show, Piper is sent to a minimum-security women’s correctional facility to serve her 12ish months, alongside (because of course) said lady lover, who’s also locked up for her cartel involvement. The show, which touches on themes like class, gender, sexuality and race (among others) is a touching, insightful and extremely witty look at the realities of prison in America, the country that currently has as many people locked up as there are in all of Houston.
Netflix’s OITNB is based on a memoir of the same name, written by Piper Kerman, who was incarcerated for 13 months at the women’s federal correctional institute in Danbury, Connecticut (plus a few weeks at other facilities).
As a book, OITNB is pretty good, though disadvantaged when stacked up against its TV iteration. For one, much of the show’s strength comes in its ability to (ahem) show, instead of tell. Basic prison info can be conveyed visually, and the more nuanced commentary is presented as dialogue between inmates, or between an inmate and a correctional officer or counselor. By contrast, as the narrator of her own story, Piper Kerman spends far more time explaining things that the show highlights effortlessly: antiquated (yet generally peaceful) racial divisions between inmates, decrepit facilities, lacking rehabilitation programs, dubiously competent COs. Similarly, Piper’s sometimes tone-deaf naïveté as a prisoner—a point of annoyance only in the first few episodes of the Netflix season—feels much more present throughout the book, where we’re limited to her perspective.