Who isn’t watching Orange is the New Black on Netflix? It’s probably a smaller number than the total people who are watching. And I’m assuming they are all nuns and children.
I started watching it maybe a little out of peer pressure and a little bit out of curiosity. I watched the first episode without Nerdguy, but there was a lot of naked, and I guess keeping a show with that much boob to myself is akin to if he were to eat all the good chocolates when I wasn’t looking. He wanted in on it.
We found ourselves drawn in by the characters. (And I don’t mean that the way men say they read dirty magazines for the articles.) The storyline does a great job of filling out the characters’ backstories slowly, drawing us in further with each episode. We have finished both seasons, and we can’t wait until season 3 is ready.
What I didn’t realize until we were midway through watching is that the series is based on the book by Piper Kerman, also called Orange is the New Black. It is a memoir of her time in prison. There is an actual Larry, to whom she is still married. Piper really did serve just over a year in prison. And I, along with other members of the Netflix Streamteam, was invited to meet her in California at the Netflix headquarters in Los Gatos.
I didn’t mention at customs that I was going to meet a former felon who served time for drug trafficking. I get interrogated enough when I tell them I am going to visit a friend. I also really hoped that they didn’t think my copy of the book was a how-to guide. Clearly I could never be a drug mule. I shake violently just carrying the story about one.
Our visit to Netflix was a lot of fun. They name all of their rooms after TV shows and movies, and the bathroom doors are hysterical. (Remember that I was an accountant. We had motivational posters at work, not anything that was actually motivating.) After a tour and some yummy food and drinks we got to hear from two executives in charge of children’s programming. It was interesting to hear how they decide what shows to buy, what content to suggest to the users, and even what features to include in how that content is delivered.
The big treat though was that the people at Netflix brought Piper Kerman in to talk to us about her book, the publishing process, and how it transformed into the hit Netflix exclusive that everyone is talking about.
I wasn’t sure what this would be like. Personally I find it a lot easier to talk about revealing experiences in writing, than I do in person. The first time that someone mentions to me that they read my blog, or they ask me about something I have written, I immediately feel naked. Putting my thoughts on a screen is just detached enough from actual people that I can pretend that the things I say are still secrets, even though I know they’re not. I think it’s a bit like the difference between confession at the church said to the priest in the confessional behind a screen, versus face to face. Even though I know that in both cases the priest will know my sins, at least I don’t have to look him in the eye when I say that I lied to my mother. It’s a level of mental protection.
So I didn’t know how Piper would react to standing in front of a group of people and telling her story, even though I am sure she is getting used to it by now, and that prison pretty much takes care of any last shred of modesty a person may have. I was pleasantly surprised when right away she was encouraging us to ask her something that would shock her, and that no topic was off limits. I was further impressed by how funny and well-spoken she is even more so than her character is portrayed in the series.
Piper spends her time working on prison reform because the abuse of power, unfit conditions, and injustice of convictions by race and class – all issues dealt with on the show – are very real concerns. Orange is the New Black is not only an entertaining show, but also a great vehicle for social change. I think it is admirable that she has not only survived the ordeal of going to prison, but is using that experience to campaign for positive changes in a system that needs fixing. It would be easy to compartmentalize that time in her life, and leave it in the past, but she is using it to make things better for all of us. It seems like the ultimate rehabilitation, but also one likely made easier because she comes from a good background, is well educated, and well spoken. We need to make sure that people from less advantaged backgrounds are not unfairly sentenced or abused in prison, and that rehabilitation is the focus rather than punishment. We learn that when we are raising our children – modelling good behaviour and teaching our kids works a hell of a lot better than setting them up for failure and then locking them in their rooms. Yes it’s absolutely harder. But it’s also critical, and life-changing.
Thank you Netflix for a fun afternoon, and thank you Piper for being so lovely, indulging our questions, and lighting a fire under us to make a difference.