TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. One of the most influential TV shows of the streaming era has ended. Last Friday, Netflix dropped the seventh and final season of "Orange Is The New Black." The series depicted life inside a women's prison and launched the careers of some of its star Latina and black actresses. Critic Soraya Nadia McDonald says the final season feels just as vital as the first.
SORAYA NADIA MCDONALD: When I realized that large parts of the final season of "Orange Is The New Black" would be set in an immigration detention center, I seriously began to mourn the fact that after seven seasons, the show is finally ending. That's because this season is just as urgent and just as radical as its first in doing something few other shows do - it takes the plight of poor and minority women seriously. It doesn't shy away from the inhumane horrors inflicted upon them in prisons and detention centers. And it does all of this in a way that is smart, compassionate, detail-oriented and in direct conversation with events happening in the world at large.
It's also filled with a surprising amount of humor. After it debuted in 2013, creator and showrunner Jenji Kohan said on FRESH AIR that she used the show's star character, Piper Chapman, as a, quote, "Trojan horse."
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JENJI KOHAN: You're not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women and Latina women and old women and criminals. But if you take this white girl - this sort of fish out of water - and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all those other stories. But it's a hard sell to just go in and try to sell those stories initially.
MCDONALD: The show, adapted from Piper Kerman's memoir of a year spent in a women's prison, ushered in a new era of television. It was the second original series Netflix produced after "House Of Cards." Each episode was structured in such a way that you just had to watch the next one immediately. It helped turn an Internet streaming service into a real television network and a perennial contender for Emmys. The women of Litchfield Correctional became legitimate stars.
But the power of "Orange Is The New Black" always lay in its setting and its focus. It actually got people to think about difficult, challenging subjects like recidivism and solitary confinement as torture.
The show's sixth season was its weakest. It blew up familiar, longstanding relationships and doubled down on the guards' sadistic behavior. But the final season, in many ways, is a return to what made it great. When we last saw Piper, played by Taylor Schilling, she was leaving prison. In the new season, Piper, now working as a waitress, is having a hard time navigating life on the outside. In this scene, she meets with her probation officer, played by Alysia Joy Powell.
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ALYSIA JOY POWELL: (As Wyndolyn Capers) So how's the job going?
TAYLOR SCHILLING: (As Piper Chapman) Oh, fine. Good. Tips could be better. I think if I could pick up a dinner shift, they would improve.
POWELL: (As Wyndolyn Capers) So you can't pick up any dinner shifts?
SCHILLING: (As Piper Chapman) Curfew's 11. Dinner shifts go till 1 a.m.
POWELL: (As Wyndolyn Capers) Yeah, I guess you can't pick up any dinner shifts (laughter).
SCHILLING: (As Piper Chapman) I got offered a job at a better restaurant, but they serve alcohol.
POWELL: (As Wyndolyn Capers) Oh, yeah. That's not allowed.
SCHILLING: (As Piper Chapman) I'm aware.
POWELL: (As Wyndolyn Capers) So I'm just going to write down that it's going OK. You got a check for me?
SCHILLING: (As Piper Chapman) I didn't realize that early release meant I was responsible for all of my monitoring and testing fees. You know, it makes it really hard for people to get back on their feet.
POWELL: (As Wyndolyn Capers) You got a check for me?
SCHILLING: (As Piper Chapman) Is it OK if I pay double next week? I haven't got my latest paycheck, and the money I do have, I really need for a bus so that I can go visit my...
POWELL: (As Wyndolyn Capers) Yeah, please do not make me regret approving that MA visit, OK? You pay now, or you're going to be in violation of your probation.
MCDONALD: "Orange Is The New Black" showed us how prisons routinely ignore and violate the rights of trans people with the character of Sophia Burset, played by Laverne Cox. Cox became the first openly transgender person to be nominated for a primetime Emmy.
And though it gave us a look inside a women's prison, the show expanded its view and ours with its signature flashbacks to their lives before incarceration. It continually built out the stories of its ensemble cast to show how poverty, sexual abuse and racism provide the building blocks that doom so many women.
The character of Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren, played with such depth and sensitivity by Uzo Aduba, will long be remembered for the sense of innocence she brought to this show and for her continued faith in other people, even after years of being treated shabbily. But the show's most memorable moment was the heartbreaking death of Poussey Washington, played by Samira Wiley, in season 5. Poussey was tackled and suffocated to death by a guard, recalling the real-life death of Eric Garner, who was killed when a New York police officer put him in a chokehold.
Along with Wiley and Aduba, "Orange Is The New Black" turned Cox, Danielle Brooks - who plays Taystee - and Dascha Polanco - who plays Daya - into recognizable stars. Brooks was nominated for a Tony for her role in a revival of "The Color Purple" on Broadway and recently played Beatrice in a public theater production of "Much Ado About Nothing." The show also resuscitated the career of Kate Mulgrew and reminded us of the many talents of Natasha Lyonne, who was able to parlay her success into a new project, "Russian Doll."
The mission of "Orange Is The New Black" became the mission of its actors, too. Nick Sandow, who plays warden Joe Caputo, co-produced a documentary about Kalief Browder, the New York teen who died by suicide after being released from a three-year stint on Rikers Island, which included two years in solitary. Similarly, Cox produced a documentary about Cece McDonald, a woman who was imprisoned for assault after defending herself when she was attacked for being trans.
"Orange Is The New Black" became more than a riveting TV show; it became a force for good. Now it's got one more shot, and it's focusing our attention on Latina immigrants and asylum seekers. This season shows how they are being treated with even less grace and humanity than the tiny doses meted out to the women of Litchfield.
For seven seasons, "Orange Is The New Black" gave voice to the voiceless. It's left me wondering, now that it's ending, who in Hollywood will pick up the baton.
GROSS: Soraya Nadia McDonald writes for the ESPN website The Undefeated.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, I'll talk with comic, actor and writer Wanda Sykes about being a comic in the Trump era and about writing material about being an African American lesbian married to a white woman. They have two children. Her latest comedy special on Netflix is nominated for two Emmys. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF TIM HAGANS AND ANKE HELFRICH'S "THINK OF ONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.