By the time you read this, Netflix’s supremely popular Orange is the New Black likely has a slew of Emmys for its mantle. The show, about a woman (Taylor Schilling) serving time in a federal prison for transporting drug money, made a splash when it premiered last year, and has only grown in popularity since. It’s a perfect fit for Netflix’s binge-watching set-up: funny, smart, packed with colorful characters, and full of twists and turns. Once you start watching, it’s hard to look away.
But the show, created by Jenji Kohan and based on the book by Piper Kerman, is worthy of celebration for numerous reasons beyond being supremely entertaining. It’s one of the few female-driven shows on television, with women making up the bulk of the sizable ensemble: strong women with complex interior lives, who are often sympathetic because of their fascinating flaws, rather than in spite of them. The cast is also the most diverse you can find, and the way the show comments on racial dynamics within the prison walls provides some of the most fascinating scenes and story arcs.
Where Orange is the New Black most stands out, though, is in how it handles its characters’ sexuality. No show on television more beautifully handles the complexities of human sexuality, especially regarding sexual minorities. There’s even an episode titled Lesbian Request Denied, directed by none other than Jodie Foster.
Schilling’s Piper, the show’s protagonist and the viewer’s entry point to the strange world behind bars, is a rarity on television, or anywhere in pop culture: a bisexual woman. The majority of LGBTQ characters in film and television are gay or lesbian, and if those categories are violated (say, a gay character hooks up with a woman), the character’s sexuality is quickly reestablished, and the “slip-up” is excused as just that: a moment of weakness, or a bit of fun. Bisexuality is a mode of sexuality that people have trouble grasping. I’ve had bisexual friends get accused of being greedy or confused; their sexuality is wrongly deemed somehow unacceptable.
Piper may be confused, and even greedy, but not because of her sexuality; it’s because of her selfishness, and the love she feels for two people. She represents the fluidity of human sexuality, as at ease in the embrace of criminal girlfriend Alex (Laura Prepon) as she is beside fiancé-cum-ex-fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs). It’s the Kinsey scale at work, suggesting that there are few, if any, people who are completely hetero- or homosexual. Most of us fall somewhere in between.
For many viewers (myself included), the show’s standout character is Sophia, a transgendered woman played by Laverne Cox. Her work on the show has made Cox an icon of the transgender community, gracing the cover of TIME and becoming the first transgender Emmy nominee.
Sophia’s story – the show, like LOST, sprinkles its episodes with flashbacks chronicling how the inmates ended up behind bars – is the show’s most emotional. A firefighter unhappily living as a man, Sophia commits credit card fraud to fund her transition. Her wife supports her on her journey while her young son is less understanding. The show tenderly handles the difficulties of coming out as transgender, and displays the possibilities of families adjusting and adapting to such life-changing events. While some CBS comedies use the transgender community for ill-advised punchlines, Orange is the New Black gives viewers a window into a minority group they may not know much about.
Though viewers likely tune in for the drama and laughs, the underlying current that makes Orange is the New Black so emotionally deep and darkly humorous is the way the show handles the tension, despair, confusion and joy of being a minority, whether racial or sexual. Few shows so boldly comment on the minority experience, and those that do often lack the grace and nuance of Kohen’s creation. It’s no wonder we’re already collectively counting down to season three.