"This isn't 'Oz'," a prison counselor says to Piper Chapman (played by Taylor Schilling) early in the first episode of "Orange Is the New Black."
The words are meant to reassure the heroine of Netflix's latest original series, a blond yuppie serving 15 months in the Litchfield women's prison because she carried a suitcase full of drug money for her ex-girlfriend. But viewers ought to take notice as well, because "Orange Is the New Black" is hardly the vulgar, violence-driven prison drama of yesteryear. Nor is it really interested in the shower rapes or lesbian panic of pulpier women-in-prison movies like "Chained Heat."
What "Orange Is the New Black" offers is more character-focused, maybe even sociological. The show very consciously isn't about life in federal women's prison, it's about life in one federal women's prison and the inmates that reside there. Piper learns the distinction fairly quickly. Fearing that prison might take her by surprise, she arrives having studied up on the social etiquette of prison (it's hard not to imagine her holding a lemon-colored tome entitled "Surviving Your Short Prison Stint for Dummies"). It doesn't help; within hours, she insults Litchfield's head chef and gets starved out by the kitchen staff. It becomes clear both to her and to us that this prison has its own social order shaped by the interactions of women who have no choice but to coexist.
Sexuality is a considerable force in that social structure, and either because of that or in spite of it, "Orange Is the New Black" offers some of the most nuanced, thorough portrayals of queer women on television. From the outset, same-sex female relationships are accepted as a given. So when Piper's counselor tells her both comfortingly and emphatically that she does "not have to have lesbian sex" at Litchfield, he looks ridiculous. After all, she already has; the show's opening sequence shows her having shower sex with her ex-girlfriend Alex (Laura Prepon). When it turns out Alex is also bunking at Litchfield, Piper's reluctance to reconnect doesn't stem from concern she's veering toward the gay end of the Kinsey scale. If anything, Piper seems worried that lingering feelings for her ex will lead her to cheat on her male fiance (Jason Biggs). Sexual fluidity is the least of her worries, and Piper's actually the character who points out its existence.
Concerns about fidelity trump heteronormative social pressure for all of the lesbian and bisexual women in Litchfield, which makes "Orange Is the New Black" feel remarkably progressive. As one inmate prepares to return to life outside the prison walls, her current lover worries that she'll meet somebody else, gender irrelevant. Adding another wrinkle to the scene is butch cancer patient Big Boo (played by out comedian Lea DeLaria), who would rather see the woman that rejected her serve extra prison time than leave Litchfield in a relationship with someone else. Similar complexity marks all of the same-sex relationships in "Orange Is the New Black" (including the one between Piper and her insanely devoted stalker "Crazy Eyes"), which is why they feel more full-bodied than those in previous shows.
In general, "Orange Is the New Black" does a solid job representing queer women as part of a larger spectrum beyond sexuality. With no character is that more clear than transgender inmate Sophia Burset, who is played, astonishingly, by a trans actress (Laverne Cox). Sophia's inclusion feels forward-thinking enough (try to remember the last time you saw a transgender person of color on a television drama, let alone the last time Hollywood cast a transgender actress to play one), but show creator Jenji Kohan goes a step further and makes Sophia a multi-layered character. Sophia gets much of the spotlight in the show's third episode (directed by Jodie Foster), when bureaucratic penal procedures cause Litchfield to stop supplying her estrogen. As she grapples with the possibility of losing her gender identity, we learn of her strained relationship with her wife and son, but we also learn of the credit card fraud that was part of her journey to have the right body. One episode earlier, Sophia seemed destined to provide comic relief. By the end of this one, she's a full-fledged character who seems comfortable, vulnerable, guilty and blameless. Suddenly, "Orange Is the New Black" feels like Sophia's story even though it's ostensibly Piper's.
That's the perfect example of what "Orange Is the New Black" can achieve when it's firing on all cylinders. Yes, the show spends substantial time in Piper's world, drawing on fish-out-of-water humor and her simmering tension with Alex. But it also makes a point to show Piper's experience is one out of many. After four hours, you'll start to feel painfully sorry for all of these incarcerated women. After 13, you'll be dying to spend another season trapped with them.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun