Everything's going great for Piper Chapman: she's white, she's blonde, she's pretty, she's well off, she's engaged, she's arrested, wait, hold up, that's not supposed to happen. Just like that, a torrid lesbian relationship with a drug runner comes back to haunt her, and she's sentenced to a year in a women's prison in Litchfield. Piper is the audience's POV character, a fish out of water, and she is our gateway to a cast unlike any other on television: women, women, women, of all colors and sizes and backgrounds. White women, black women, Latina women, Chinese woman, Japanese-Scottish woman, transwoman, it's basically unreal. I loved how different everyone looked, not just from the usual women you see on television but also from each other. And even better, they sounded different; so many different (literal) voices on this show, from Morello's hybrid East Coast accent to Miss Claudette's authoritarian Caribbean accent, from Yoga Jones's Patty Mayonnaise voice to Miss Rosa's husky voice.
Although the show is ostensibly Piper's story, it's the stories surrounding her that are the most compelling. And there are so many because everyone has one. Todd VanDerWerff calls Orange Is the New Black one of the most empathetic shows in the history of television, and he's right: this show cares about its characters. Everyone is a person, for better or for worse. Through flashbacks, we learn how the characters ended up in prison, and many—perhaps too many—are victims of circumstance, committing crimes to get out of a bad situation, usually for love, familial or romantic. The show does not absolve them of guilt or responsibility, but, again, it empathizes with them. Even the few male characters, most of whom are pretty terrible people, are drawn well enough that we understand why they're terrible and, in some cases, even feel the teensiest bit bad for them. In the end, nearly everyone's story boils down to a story of identity: who are you? Who were you out of prison? Who are you in prison? Which is the real you? And what kind of power does it give you to answer that question?
I could wax rhapsodic about how much I love all the characters, about how Taystee is the best because she loves Harry Potter, about how Crazy Eyes lives up to her name but isn't just a joke, about how I have never seen an episode of television like the one focused on Sophia, a transwoman. I could marvel at how intricately plotted the show is, especially in its second season, where multiple character arcs interweave and converge upon each other. I could point out the major flaw, which is Larry, Piper's fiancé, who is supposed to be our eyes on the outside to show what Piper is missing, how the world moves on without her, but instead makes us wish the show would get back to Litchfield already.
I could do all of these things, but you've got 26 episodes on Netflix sitting right there, waiting to be watched.