This is truly a family show that feels both real and aspirational.
When people talk about where they’d like to live—the mountains, the beach, the city, the country—the word prison doesn’t come up that often. Certainly it wasn’t a dream destination for Piper Chapman, a nice, reasonably well-off suburbanite. She’s just not the type, possessing, as she does, a college education, a former start-up soap business (which she owned with her best friend) and ex-fiancé (a young writer named Larry).
She’s more Bloomingdale’s than Big House, more Saks than Slammer. But the authorities didn’t care as much about Piper’s new life as they did about her old one—as the lesbian lover of international drug dealer Alex Vause. So she was tried, convicted and sent to Litchfield Penitentiary. Whoops.
“It was my lost-soul, post-college adventure phase!” she tells Larry.
But she’s just Chapman now—no room for hoity-toity first names in Litchfield—as she tries to stay out of trouble (at least the deadly kind) and learn the prison’s complicated sociopolitical culture. And so as the months tick away and Piper’s sentence extends through seven television seasons, she, and her rapt viewers, begin to question just who Piper really is.
Orange Is the New Black is based on a memoir by Piper Kerman, who spent about a year in prison for money laundering and drug trafficking. It was created by Jenji Kohan, the mind behind Showtime’s Weeds. And most mainstream critics love it with a nearly criminal fanaticism. The San Francisco Chronicle says the program has redefined “television excellence,” in fact.
The Netflix show is sharply written, populated by multidimensional characters and ultimately has some nice things to say about friendship, acceptance and forgiveness. The series has evolved, too. Now, Piper is just one member of a crowded ensemble cast, each character trying to find humanity in the midst of some inhumane conditions. (That’s especially true in Season 7, as the show takes place in a maximum-security unit).
But that doesn’t much matter in the confines of this review: Families will still want to send it to jail after watching only a few minutes.
Orange may be the new black, but the sexuality here is purely red-light worthy. Some of the women have sex with prison guards. Other prisoners are lesbians (either by sexual inclination or lack of male partners), and the Netflix camera tends to linger on their sexual encounters. (There’s a transgender inmate as well.) Even when there’s no obvious behind-the-bars hanky-panky in play, female nudity is frequent and graphic. There is no privacy here—no doors to keep the camera away from the toilet or shower.
Language, meanwhile, is as blue as blue can get, with f-, s- and even c-words thrown around like so many stale biscuits in the cruddy cafeteria. Violence includes women (sometimes while naked) getting threatened, beaten up, cut, etc. Nope, prison isn’t a place most of us would like to live. Frankly, I don’t even want to visit one—even if the visit is purely via this TV show.
In the series finale, Piper tries to move forward without her female ex-lover, Alex. Inmate Crazy Eyes learns to grow up emotionally. Inmate Taystee reels from the loss of a close friend and teaches other inmates how to find financial freedom.
A prison warden assumes an inmate’s death was the result of suicide from a drug overdose (we see the dead body zipped into a bag and carried away). Two women talk about all the people they’ve watched die. A mother threatens to kill her vindictive daughter.
During a prison sweep, guards confiscate opioids and fentanyl. A prison guard (who apparently smells like marijuana) smokes a cigarette and a confiscated vape pen. A group of drug addicted inmates suffer withdrawal from a lack of narcotics. A woman, who refers to herself as a junkie, admits to stealing her grandmother’s jewelry and selling it for drugs. A bottle of drugs falls from a chicken’s rear.
Piper and her friends and family members discuss her poor choice in women. A couple, looking to adopt, try to decide if they’ll raise their future child as non-binary. Men and women make vulgar references to the male and female anatomy and to masturbation. Women make a joke about a threesome. A prison guard threatens to rape a female inmate. Prison guards confiscate a dildo. A woman pulls her friends pants down in public. Women flirt with one another.
God’s name is misused five times, often paired with “d–n” and “d–mit,” while Jesus’ name is abused twice. The f-word is heard nearly 40 times and the s-word is used 15 times. “B–ch,” “h—,” “d–n,” “a–,” “d–k,” “p-ssy,” “b–ch” and “a–hole” are each heard numerous times.
In the aftermath of a season-long prison riot at Litchfield, Piper and her prison “family” are shipped a little farther upriver, into Litchfield’s maximum security ward. There, they experience new guards, new prisoners and a whole new prison caste system. Piper, separated from her same-sex fiancée Alex, frantically tries to find out what’s become of her. Meanwhile, one of her associates, Suzanne, suffers a variety of hallucinations because she’s been off her medication for a good long while.
One hallucination imagines fellow inmate Frieda performing card tricks, after which she slices her wrists with the edge of the “suicide king” card. The card leaves bloody tracks, after which playing cards explode out of the wounds. (The hallucination mirrors Frieda’s own suicide attempt. We see her lying on the floor in her own blood; later, her wrists are bandaged with bloody gauze.) Two guards playing “fantasy inmate” talk about how much a suicide and attempted suicide are worth in their “league.” (Fourteen and seven points, respectively.)
A prison guard who was actually killed last season by law enforcement while storming the rioting prison (we see a horrific-looking injury to his face) is shot again by the guilty parties—part of a plot to frame the rioting women for his death. A guard beats one of the inmates with no provocation, and he and another guard force two other female inmates to kiss quite graphically. A longtime inmate called Badison trips Piper; she’s knocked unconscious by the subsequent fall and chips part of a tooth. (We see her bruised, lacerated face later when she wakes up in the infirmary with other hurting, bruised inmates.) Two inmates fight each other. In one of Suzanne’s hallucinations, the same two inmates prepare to box. Another hallucination features a modern dance number depicting police brutality (and a woman who bares her stomach).
During some allotted phone time, one woman calls her rabbi to ask for help, calling herself “your favorite convert.” Another talks with her father, and she introduces herself as “your bad seed calling from hell.” When Piper tells her father that she’s engaged to Alex, he apparently hangs up.
We hear the f-word almost 25 times, the s-word nearly a dozen and the c-word twice. Other profanity includes “a–,” “b–ch” and two abuses of Jesus’ name. A guard references some other crude euphemisms, such as “cheese and crackers” and “fuzz.”
Daya, a Litchfield inmate, takes a gun from a sadistic guard (who brought the gun in illegally and was planning a mass attack), shoots the guard in the leg and instigates a prison riot. “If this is a real riot,” Piper muses, “is it a step forwards or backwards for equality?”
It’s definitely a step back in terms of content. The sadistic guard, Humphrey, bleeds profusely from his wound, leaving a pool of red beside him. Other inmates kick him repeatedly before someone takes him to safety. Humphrey is taken to another inmate, who cuts open the man’s pant leg to operate on him. She (and we) glimpse the man’s genitals before she begins. What we see of the operation is bloody; eventually, a couple of inmates give up stitching the guard together and wheel him to the hospital’s medical facilities.
At least one female prisoner runs through the halls topless, and another flashes her bra (and plots to go topless herself) to lure a guard. Inmates make suggestive (and sometimes incredibly crude) come-ons to one another, referencing body parts and orgasms. One inmate, trying to pretend that she’s injured, uses menstrual blood to do so. There are multiple references to the male anatomy, as well.
A man is painfully kneed in the groin. So is a woman. Someone gets punched in the face, and blood pours from his nose. Another woman hits herself with a door, leading to more blood. Daya fires and points her weapon. Someone’s conked on the head with a heavy statue. Several inmates scheme to get into medical facilities, where drugs are housed. (Some want to use the drugs themselves, while others want apparently to use the drugs to gain more power.) There’s talk of a murder, committed last season. Someone confesses that she once tried to kill herself.
A Muslim character wears a hijab, while another inmate swipes a bunch of hijabs from the commissary. (A Christian inmate says she learned the word hijab in church, as in “a hijab-wearing enemy of Christ.”)
Characters use the f-word at least 45 times, the s-word nearly 30 and several other profanities, including “a–,” “b–ch,” “h—” and “p-ss.” God’s name is misused seven times, including thrice with the word “d–n.” Jesus’ name is abused a half-dozen times.
In the opening episode of the second season, Piper is whisked off to a holding facility in Chicago, wherein she’s expected to testify against Alex’s former drug boss, Kubra Balik. She struggles with whether to tell the truth under oath or lie to protect Alex and herself from retribution.
She flashes back to childhood, seeing her father kiss a woman who’s certainly not her mom. But when she told her mother about the kiss, the older woman ignored her. “Telling the truth was not a big priority in my family,” Piper later says. And, indeed, she eventually lies in court, waxing nostalgic over her past love affair with Alex.
Female prisoners are shown fully nude. They’re forced to bend over for a cavity inspection. Piper pulls down her pants to urinate. Another woman noisily defecates in an open cell toilet. Crude and/or obscene references are made to rape and sexual body parts. Piper bribes a male inmate with a pair of her dirty panties (which he sniffs). We see Piper and Alex kiss and cuddle in a pool. A cellmate licks Piper’s face and talks about how she bit her girlfriend’s tongue off and swallowed it. Piper recounts how she may have beaten a fellow prisoner to death.
Someone smokes. Cockroaches smuggle cigarettes. A prisoner tries to hide a razor in her mouth and, when it’s taken away, spits in the guard’s face. Convoluted horoscopes are concocted. We hear the f-word at least 25 times, the s-word nearly 20 times and the gamut of milder expletives, including “b‑‑ch,” “a‑‑,” “d‑‑n,” “h‑‑‑” and “p‑‑‑.” Jesus’ name is abused four or five times, God’s once or twice. Kids break rules and sneak into R movies.
“I Wasn’t Ready”
In flashback, Chapman showers with her lesbian lover, kissing and embracing. (We see them fully nude from the side.) Chapman also shares a tub with her boyfriend. A bathroom scene in prison features naked women, and when Chapman exits the shower another inmate squeezes her breasts and comments on their attributes.
That’s the show’s first two minutes.
Later we see a lesbian couple, nude and with one woman’s face pressed into the other’s groin as she fondles her lover’s breast. Chapman and her former female lover, Alex, are frequently shown smooching and flirting and seducing each other. Chapman and Larry have sex the night before she goes to prison. (We see kissing and heavy panting; Chapman wears lingerie.) A prison guard masturbates (out of the frame) after meeting with Chapman. References are made to masturbation and body parts.
Chapman uses the toilet, and the scene includes images of her wiping. She’s “given” a bloody tampon to eat by the kitchen supervisor, and she undergoes a body cavity search. Vomit is discussed. Chapman and friends drink wine and beer. The f-word is said more than a dozen times, the s-word eight or 10 and the c-word once. We also hear “a‑‑,” “b‑‑ch,” “h‑‑‑,” “p‑‑‑y” and “t-t.” Jesus’ and God’s names are abused twice or three times each.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.
Kristin Smith joined the Plugged In team in 2017. Formerly a Spanish and English teacher, Kristin loves reading literature and eating authentic Mexican tacos. She and her husband, Eddy, love raising their children Judah and Selah. Kristin also has a deep affection for coffee, music, her dog (Cali) and cat (Aslan).
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