Last weekend, Piper Kerman (the real life Piper Chapman) appeared along with Orange Is the New Black actors on Melissa Harris-Perry's show on MSNBC to discuss the realities of prison life and the relevance of the issues faced by characters in the show. Their interview, which covers topics ranging from the maltreatment of transgender individuals to a crumbling mental healthcare system, isn't just revealing of television's potential to make real social change — it also makes it impossible to ignore the huge impact that a woman's true story can make when it isn't diluted into an overdramatic, made-for-TV movie.
Netflix's Orange Is the New Black was not marketed well: the show's original trailer was a blend of emotional one-liners and triumphant Rilo Kiley music that made it come off as an over-extended Lifetime drama about biracial friendships and self-discovery.
To be fair, OITNB is technically 90 percent about biracial friendships and self-discovery — but anyone who started watching the show hoping for a heartwarming story about a white girl who loves baths and learns to deal with prison showers by being a more understanding person had another thing coming. And by the time they saw Piper (SPOILER!) beating a threateningly religious ex-meth head half to death in the series' finale, they probably realized the dangers of judging a Netflix drama by its poorly edited previews.
The format of the first few episodes of OITNB is as follows: We learn about Piper's past in the outside world, we see the contrast of her life at Litchfield prison, she interacts with someone who's socioeconomically opposite from her, and then we see flashbacks to that woman's life story. In every other case I can think of where a similar, flashback-driven structure was used on television, it's been mediocre and tedious. But in this complete game-changer of a show, it functions to force viewers into consciousness of their own similarities to Piper's character — the close-mindedness and the subtle prejudices that are synonymous to human nature.
It's OITNB's explicit agenda to give its audience an experience as close to Piper's as is possible from the comfort of their own homes. We become increasingly aware over the course of the show's first season that it intended, from the start, to lead us to unfair, immediate perceptions of every one of its characters — to show us how easy that is to do, and ultimately, to prove us wrong. Its structure borderlines on audience-interactive; its end point is effective because, just like Piper, we were kidding ourselves when we thought we knew what prison could mean for her.
It's exciting, though, that we're about to find out what a TV show could mean for prison.