Women In Revolt

Orange Is the New Black, 2013–, production still from a TV show on Netflix. Season 3, episode 6. Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren and Poussey Washington (Uzo Aduba and Samira Wiley).

DAVID SIMON, the creator of The Wire (2002–2008), famously said of the origins of that lauded Baltimore-set HBO program: “Our model when we started . . . wasn’t other television shows. The standard we were looking at was Balzac’s Paris or Dickens’s London or Tolstoy’s Moscow.” Orange Is the New Black, the hit Netflix series created by Jenji Kohan, has a less exalted literary prototype: Piper Kerman’s 2010 memoir of the same name, chronicling her year in stir. But the show, whose third season recently became available for gluttonous, single-sitting consumption, has consistently stood out for its novel-of-manners-like attention to detail. Recounting the lives of the inmates—white, black, Latina, and Asian; young and old; straight, gay, and other—at Litchfield Correctional Facility, a fictional women’s penitentiary in upstate New York, OITNB, in its best moments, suggests Edith Wharton had she written not The House of Mirth but The House of Meth.

Other influences would seem to be lesbian-pulp paradigm Ann Bannon and the galvanizing findings of Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow (published the same year as Kerman’s book), regarding this country’s prison-industrial complex. Showcasing perhaps the most diverse female cast ever seen on television, OITNB nominally centers around Kerman’s surrogate, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), the Waspy, bisexual Seven Sisters grad who’s behind bars for aiding and abetting her drug-selling girlfriend, Alex (Laura Prepon). By the third season, viewers are blessedly spared the recurrence of Piper’s ex-fiancé Larry and thus of Jason Biggs, the supreme nullity who portrayed him.

Filling this heteronormative void, however, is a sapphic subplot that proves almost as dull. Further complicating her on-again, off-again relationship with Alex, Piper takes up with new Litchfield inmate Stella, played by Australian model Ruby Rose, whose acting gifts don’t extend much beyond confident winking. Schilling, too, remains a performer of narrow range, the limits of her talent made especially clear as her character assumes a tougher persona as the capo of a contraband unwashed-panties operation.

In her rave of OITNB’s first season, New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum pointed out that “while the show touches on the grinding unfairness of the penal system, it’s never preachy or grim.” Though that observation still mainly holds true, more than once this season, the series’ usually fluid dialogue was gummed up by lengthy trivia-filled asides or blunt speechifying. These infelicitous rhetorical acts were usually committed by Litchfield’s reigning bull dagger, Big Boo (Lea DeLaria), who butchsplained some of the theses in Freakonomics to born-again Doggett (Taryn Manning) and later delivered the show’s most clanging redundancy: “God, there’s no fucking justice!”

But these awkward interruptions and outbursts, even if more numerous than in past seasons, are still dwarfed by subtle yet sharp comments on, among other weighty topics, this country’s abominable status as the “jailingest” nation in the world and the disastrous results of prison privatization. And OITNB continues its superlative use of flashbacks, an often clunky narrative device that is here used to recapitulate the backstories of characters both major and minor, illuminating the circumstances and choices that led to Litchfield. This season, these histories are rendered in at least three different languages, including, most astonishingly, Pennsylvania Dutch. The series’ assiduous attention to the particulars of each inmate’s life, whether delving into her past or her present, has made it one of the most brilliantly kaleidoscopic in the history of television. As the great Laverne Cox, who plays the transgender prisoner Sophia, recently told the New York Times, “In some ways trans people are like everybody else, and in some ways we are not. When we get specific in the storytelling, that’s when the universality happens.”

The third season of Orange Is the New Black was released June 11 on Netflix.