It's an all-woman prison as we in India don't know anything about. The meals are wholesome, there are neat showers, the beds have clean sheets and everyone has their own cupboard. There are running tracks, a library, and leisure time and Christmas celebrations. As per Maslow's hierarchy, the problems here start higher on the scale.
Piper is in because she's been ratted out by an ex-lover and drug runner Alex, who is already doing time in the same prison. But Piper is engaged to be married now, has sought to put her lesbian past, and pretty seedy activities, behind. And just then, she finds herself where she least expected - donning the orange loose clothes of prison.
The series engages immediately as it introduces a galaxy of characters which make up the facilities, as seen through Piper's eyes. She herself is an educated, sentimental, often wishy-washy girl, with her heart in the right place, often foolishly honest, perennially uncertain of what to do, and getting into trouble, even when trouble doesn't want her.
And it's fun to see the myriad characters, play out their characters, black-white-grey, and how the episodic nature of the series slowly takes on themes, as we warm up to the players. An important part of the prison system is the mandala of the guards, wardens and senior authorities, and how their politics and proclivities impinge upon the fortunes of the prisoners.
There is danger always around the corner, as screwdrivers get stolen, lesbians get aggressive, Christian nutcases push their religious agendas, guards push drugs, prisoners have secret sex, ethnicities congeal, and a prisoner becomes pregnant. But for Piper, nothing could be as good, or as bad, as her falling in lust again with her ex, Alex, even as her boyfriend waits for her.
There is a lightness of touch as the series unravels, until in the seventh episode or so, it suddenly finds an emotional core. It's about the time Piper realizes how her emotional world is unravelling uncontrollably. She is thrown into solitary confinement. And the stories of outside which her boyfriend keeps bringing in, seem to be so beautiful yet so trivial, compared to what she was facing inside the prison. Her heart hardens, her existence takes on an urgency to seek life where she can get it, and things start to go all over.
The series is not dark and dense. There is a lot of light and song and secret-&-happy sex. But there is claustrophobia which keeps building up, and it writhes beneath the skin, and inside the heart and head of Piper. Until it bursts out in a paroxysm of unbridled anger & violence, appropriately in the end - all primed for next season.
I sometimes wonder what draws us to television dramas, so much so that we are ready to invest much time and priority plonked in front of the screen, watching the drama spin out. Of course the usual things are there - the story, the characters, the hooks, et al. But the real McCoy for me is - vulnerability. And the strength which characters find beneath fear. The finest moments in television often come from characters who get destroyed, destroy or overcome destruction arising out of a sweet spot of weakness, which is, well, so much like what we carry inside. We either see ourselves, or visualize ourselves being what those characters are. And the identification grows.
We might not land up in prisons (heaven forbid!), but as we see Piper, we get an inkling of what confused decent people like us would be if we get there. And that's powerful.