When HBO and Showtime turned away Jenji Kohan (fresh off the success of the dark comedy Weeds) and her bagful of oranges, she took the goldmine that was Orange is the New Black to Netflix, who opened their doors for her far and wide. Netflix was stretching its wings in a bid to expand its original content catalogue and gain a better foothold in the cultural wars between traditional TV and OTT.
The series remains the best Netflix offering of all time, mostly perhaps because of how it paved the way for others. Beef, Glow, Russian Doll, even BoJack Horseman and Bridgerton can stand tall on its shoulders because of the way Kohan daringly and seamlessly explored the greyest bits of human nature while championing hope even in the dreariest of prison cells.
Based on Piper Kerman’s 2010 memoir Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, Kohan’s adaptation used Taylor Schilling’s deliberately hyperbolic Piper as a mere entry point to conduct some of the most phenomenal storytelling with a cast and characters notoriously ignored by mainstream Hollywood even today. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that OITNB ushered in a new era of television. While we were worriedly gaping at the alarming rise of fascism and anti-minority sentiment around the world, the Netflix and chill generation was coming of age. We were in desperate need of that mood being reflected in our pop culture. Right then, OITNB swooped in and swept us away with its perfectly captured socio-political zeitgeist of this crucial period. From featuring an actual trans actor (Laverne Cox) to telling the story of a trans character, having multiple races, ethnicities, ages, and sexual identities represented with authenticity: TV got to be at its diverse best with OITNB.
Binge-watching also became synonymous with this generation, thanks to OITNB. Even though Netflix pushed for it with their first true original, House of Cards (which was released five months ahead of OITNB), things finally took off for the streaming platform with the Jenji Kohan creation. Just like reading your favourite book, now viewers could choose to watch as much of their favourite show as they could digest at one go, stopping wherever they liked, putting a neat little bookmark just where they had paused. This show, and in turn, Netflix, has forever changed the way we consume TV. There was now a semblance of having some control over our lives while the world continued to spin out of it. Some people believe the world has only gone downhill since 2016, with someone like Trump suddenly gaining access to nuclear codes, followed by a frightful pandemic and a global rise of far-right populism. But things had actually started going bad a lot earlier. OITNB’s existence coincided with all the unfurling madness, and it almost acted as a synchronous documentation vehicle.
All seven seasons and 91 episodes of OITNB (making it the second-longest-running Netflix original, after Grace and Frankie with 94 episodes) are studded with gems. Not only did this dramedy birth a renaissance moment for auteurs like Natasha Lyonne, it brilliantly told marginalised women’s stories, mostly crafted by women, through a distinctly intersectional feminist gaze. It largely reshaped the way ‘strong female characters’ were written in fiction. Her strength wasn’t about literal muscle but about how well these characters mirrored lived realities. There was no need to worry about the show passing the Bechdel test (redundant as it may be now) or to look for tropes that put any of these characters in boxes—Kohan had a whole gamut of characters to masterfully illustrate stories of the human condition.
Social issues in popular fiction are best dished out without any heavy-handed preachiness. When Piper privilege-splained to Daya (Dascha Polanco) in season three, episode seven, it was dark comedy gold. Running off with a misguided take from the 2010 study by Nobel laureate and psychologist Daniel Kahneman in true Piper style, she told a harried mom-to-be contemplating adoption, “There was this study that said that money does buy happiness, up to $75,000 a year. But after that, increasing your income doesn’t make you any happier”. There is enough evidence that disregards this claim, as Dylan Matthews notes in his column at Vox.
OITNB was dynamic enough to weave a tapestry full of humour and horror in equal measures. Even though it wasn’t based on a true story, the chilling ‘little Debbie murderers’ storyline featuring feuding sisters Carol (played by Henny Russell & Ashley Jordyn) and Barb (played by Mackenzie Phillips & Lauren Kelston) was an excellent study of human psychopathy. But these sensationalist bits weren’t what made the show what it was. OITNB put a lens on the class divide, notions of cultural and racial privilege, as well as the agonies of ageing in a society that sees no profit in caring for the indigent elderly.
Karla Córdova’s (played by Karina Arroyave) story of an immigrant mother, separated from her sons by an unsympathetic system, left to an unknown fate with a broken ankle in a desert somewhere, will still kindle rage and grief because the migrant crisis has only become worse as has the apathy of most of our world leaders. Hatred for minorities and the marginalised has spilt over and spread beyond the confines of the Trump presidency. We don’t have one symptomatic leader’s facade to hide behind. Seven seasons may not be a lot in the big scheme of things, but the fact that a show that first came into our lives a decade ago still continues to be such a blazing parable of our times is enough to end all discussions about its unyielding relevance or legacy.