Like the rest of the civilized world (or at least most of my friends on Facebook), my husband and I spent thirteen hours this summer gobbling up the new Netflix series "Orange Is the New Black." There’s so much to love about the show: the way the writers slowly dole out the surprising back stories for each of the inmates, the way you can get so frustrated by the main character, but still be completely engrossed in her struggle, the Emmy-worthy performances of a supporting cast so deep with talent that it seems like they raided the entire graduating class of Juilliard. As I’ve been simultaneously following "Orange" and the New York City mayoral primaries in the August heat, it has occurred to me that I might vote for the Russian chef Red or even brilliantly loony “Crazy Eyes” for mayor over any of the actual half-baked candidates.
But while I’ve both laughed and cried during episodes of "Orange," I often find myself left with a sort of existential queasiness, and I think I’ve figured out why. More than anything, this show confronts something hidden in the back of all our minds: What if?
For the main character, Piper Chapman, based on real-life memoirist Piper Kerman, the question was: What if a mistake I made when I was young and stupid comes back to bite me in the ass? Ten years after agreeing to carry a bag of drug money over international lines for her girlfriend, Piper finds out: She lands in the federal pen, trading in her bourgeois life designing rosemary-lavender soaps for Barneys and eating in trendy restaurants for showering in flips-flops made of Kotex and picking the mold out of bologna slices.
So I find it impossible to watch this and not think of my own what-ifs. It’s not that I’ve ever done anything remotely as illicit as smuggle drug money (and if I did, I’m not telling you!), but I find myself thinking back on all the crossroads and decisions made over the past decades, and wondering: What if I had gone into computers or law, like my parents had urged, instead of sticking it out in the less stable but more satisfying (and now sadly dying) world of print journalism? What if I had remained friends with the kids who smoked out by the stairs in high school instead of throwing in my lot with the straight arrows from the alto section of the chorus? What if I hadn’t decided at the last minute to go to that old camp friend’s party in a crowded apartment in 1992, where I met my husband?
I know, these are not exactly earth-shattering questions that will change the history of the world, but they are decisions made once upon a time that shaped the trajectory of my life. It shakes me to the core to think that, one wrong move, and it could so easily have gone another way.
I imagine that all across the country, as people lean back on their sofas, hit play, and start singing along with that crazily addictive Regina Spektor song, they’re also flashing back to the decisions, good and bad, that got them to where they are today, and pondering the same what-ifs. Oof. It’s a gut punch, but isn’t that also the best of what TV can be?