Available on Netflix Streaming, Rated: TV-MA, 13 Episodes
First it was House of Cards. Then came Hemlock Grove and Arrested Development. Now Netflix is continuing its onslaught of original programming in 2013 with the female prison dramedy, Orange Is The New Black. Following the story of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) as she is sentenced to a year in prison for her involvement with an international drug smuggler, Black brings viewers into the seedy underbelly of the federal prison system and the criminals and staff who inhabit it.
While in prison, Piper learns the ropes from all of the seasoned inmates, including the Russian matriarch Red (Kate Mulgrew), former junkie Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) and Piper’s bunk mate Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst). Piper makes friends and enemies , as any prisoner does in a television show, and attempts to keep her engagement to her fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs) from falling apart. She must also face her past as she runs into Alex (Laura Prepon), an old flame from her previous life. We are introduced to each character’s story through flashbacks, with each episode focusing on a different inmate (similar to many shows, including Lost) to get an understanding of who they were and a glimpse at why they hold their positions in the hierarchy of the prison’s power system.
From the catchy opening credit song by Regina Spektor, to the opening scenes featuring gratuitous shots of nudity and women making love, Orange Is The New Black wants to titillate viewers. Although based on the memoir of the same name, written by Piper Kerman, Black treads some of the taboo-breaking ground as the popular Showtime series Weeds*, also from the show’s creator, Jenji Kohan. The largest issue with this is that Kohan’s “protagonists” use sex, false naiveté and innocence to manipulate those around them, which wears thin fairly quickly as character motivation. What separates Black from Weeds, however, is the presence of its sympathetic characters. While everyone on Weeds was repulsive, Orange Is The New Black shows the vulnerability behind all of the brash attitudes of the inmates.
Natasha Lyonne (Slums of Beverly Hills*) turns in a solid performance as Nicky, a former heroin addict, who initially shares a room with Piper, and later becomes interested in Piper’s ex, Alex. The flashbacks focusing on Nicky (one issue with the show is that the flashbacks don’t tell complete stories of the characters, so hopefully with a second season more stories will be rounded out) are tough to watch, mainly because Lyonne herself has gone through a lot of the same issues as her character, so her scenes feel almost personal. While Nicky wants to be outrageous in her words and actions, we get a glimpse of a fragile person walking a very thin line between addiction and sobriety.
There are a few other characters with strong stories, such as Red, played by Kate Mulgrew (Star Trek: Voyager*), who is a tough Russian woman who can’t seem to get away from being under the thumb of the men in her life, whether they be in her family or guards at the prison. Michelle Hurst (SherryBaby*) who portrays Piper’s bunk mate Miss Claudette, is great as the strict, older woman who garners the respect of the other inmates, not by actions but by rumors that she is a cold blooded killer. While she plays that one note for a few episodes, once her back story is revealed and her story develops, Miss Claudette becomes a compelling character you can’t help but root for.
While the performances of the more established members of the cast are good, it must be noted that Taylor Schilling (The Lucky One, Atlas Shrugged*), a relative newcomer, herself turns in a great performance as Piper Chapman. While she handles the sex scenes and the ability to manipulate others around her with her “good girl” persona, Schilling does a great job of showing the terror that sits behind the dead, cold blue eyes of Piper. Schilling elevates the otherwise dull scenes she shares with Jason Biggs (American Pie, American Wedding*), who plays Piper’s fiancé Larry, the typical eunuch who invariably pitches a fit about the situation they’re in (much like most of his roles) and makes any scene she has with the grating Taryn Manning (Hustle & Flow*), who plays Piper’s nemesis Tiffany “PennsylTucky” Doggett, a meth addict turned born again Christian, tolerable.
When first turning on Orange Is The New Black it was a struggle adjusting to the flow of the show with what seemed like one stereotypical prison scene after another, whether it be shower jokes, abuse by the guards, etc. being extremely distracting. After a couple of episodes though, it sank in that this may actually be what prison is like for some people. And while this version of prison (the prison appears to be a minimum security facility) seems tame compared to how it is portrayed in other shows and films, one can’t help get a sense of the isolation and drudgery that is the day in and day out struggle of an inmate.
As the first season came to its amusingly disturbing cliff hanger of a finale, I knew I was hooked. While not perfect, Orange Is The New Black has the right mix of humor, drama and quirky characters that provides a broad enough spectrum to fill an entire season and not belabor one storyline too much. It is a cut above much of the standard fare on network and cable television these days and is well worth spending a few days binge watching this first season.
* Denotes the movie or show is available on Netflix
The Good: The opening theme song and the performances of Natasha Lyonne, Taylor Schilling and some of the other actors.
The Bad: The clichés, Jason Biggs, Laura Prepon and Taryn Manning
The Ugly: Meth Teeth