In this post, I detail the writing and story line of the first episode of season 1 of Orange is the New Black. To prepare myself to better analyze the episode, I read the following article by Rob Serling, one of the first prominent television screenwriters.
This article is actually the introduction to his script Patterns, which was a popular live broadcast in the 1950s about a corporate power struggle. The introduction expresses the mentality and struggles of a television writer. Serling stresses the need to take advantage of the visual nature of television and the advantages of incorporating certain actors and themes into scripts. Something significant that I noticed in this article was that Serling claimed “There are no courses, however specialized and applied, that will catapult him into the profession.” This statement, although in the nascent stage of television, helped build the assumption that women could not be screenwriters.
In contrast to Serling’s beliefs, Orange is the New Black (OITNB) written by the talented female screenwriter Jenji Kohan. Kohan, who is also known for Weeds and Tracy Takes On.., employs several strategies to develop an intriguing introduction which draws viewers in to watch the rest of the season.
In episode 1, the show is told in first person perspective, which I assume will continue throughout the show. The plot of the episode revolves around a middle aged women (Piper Chapman) who is sent to serve a fifteen month sentence in prison for carrying drug money for her ex-lover ten years ago. The primarily one to one nature of the character’s interactions lead me to believe that the show will heavily emphasize relationships between characters. The episode prominently features flashbacks to give background information about the protagonist, especially about her relationship with her lesbian, drug smuggling ex. These flashbacks also show that this part of her life continues to haunt her psychologically and shows some of the complex emotional issues that women have to deal with that are not often portrayed in media. To set the premise for future episodes, the writer introduces a conflict with the prison cook and unexpected challenges for Piper, such as not having any money for her first few weeks. There is also a focus on the unexpected aspects of prison, particularly for a person coming from a privileged background.
Kohan constructs Piper as an emotionally complex character who made a mistake in her younger years, allowing the audience to sympathize with her predicament. The appearance of another lesbian prisoner foreshadows that Piper will continue to explore her sexuality, unlike the stereotypical female character. The script also flips traditional gender roles by having the woman outside the household instead of the man. In conclusion, Jenji Kohan starts off Orange is the New Black with an engaging episode that will keep viewers coming back for more while also introducing a complex, realistic female protagonist.