TV: Orange is the New Black (Season 1)

Netflix’s latest entry into original programming is more evidence they should stay in the business. Orange is the New Black is a unique series with a distinctive voice, an unusual milieu, and a remarkable cast of convincing, memorable characters.

Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) is a white, middle-class liberal on the verge of grabbing the “yuppie brass ring” — marrying her doofy journalist boyfriend Larry (Jason Biggs) and starting a boutique soap business. But her wild past catches up with her when ex-girlfriend Alex (Laura Prepon) is busted for drug smuggling and names her as an accomplice to reduce her plea. Piper winds up with a 15-month sentence in upstate New York’s Litchfield Prison, where her entitled ways immediately get her on the bad side of the other inmates, including Russian kitchen boss Red (Kate Mulgrew), intimidating bunkmate Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst), and Bible-thumping firebrand Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett (Taryn Manning). But worst of all, she finds herself face-to-face with her past: it turns out Alex is serving time in the same prison.

Created by Jenji Kohan, Orange is the New Black is tonally similar to her series Weeds, with its snarky middle-class antihero, edgy and profane humor, and perverse upbeat tone contrasting dark material. But it’s a considerably better show, with more heart, a more interesting and diverse cast, and far more thought-provoking subject matter. I wasn’t sure of this at first: in fact, the vibe I was getting was “Lost in prison.” Especially in the early stages, the show deploys¬†Lost’s strategy of flashing back to life outside of prison to fill in the blanks on its characters’ backstories. Indeed, the Lost parallel kind of works thematically for Piper, too: the prison is the island, and she’s a survivor, forced to confront and reinvent herself in an unforgiving new context. This observation made me wary — Lost resemblances always do! — but fortunately this surface comparison turns out to be just that. Orange is the New Black is much more structurally confident, and more certain of its message, than Lost ever was, and especially by episode 5, “The Chickening,” I was hooked.

The show does touch on some broader commentary: the injustices of the prison system, the creepy power dynamics between the jailers and the inmates, and examinations of gender and racial politics in its stark setting. But where it succeeds most is as a platform for unusual female characters with distinctive, under-represented voices. While Piper is clearly the entry character through which we learn the show’s world, the show seems less about her than the world itself, and how it impacts the many unfortunates who fall into its clutches. The cast is peppered with unforgettable characters, from recovering junkie Nicky (Natasha¬† Lyonne) to loose cannon Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (Uzo Aduba) to troubled transgender woman Sophia (Laverne Cox), and so forth. Their stories are tragic, but with inspiring moments of humor and friendship to them. Even once we see how they got where they are, we also see how the system seems designed to keep them there. Meanwhile, Piper — self-absorbed and sarcastic, but outwardly harmless — finds the system working like an unforgiving mirror on all her worst traits, transforming her into something almost unrecognizable.

It does have uneven moments, and problematic subplots. Particularly troubling to me was Mendez (Pablo Schreiber), the monstrous prison guard played uncomfortably for laughs. In a show full of horrible villains — most of the male prison staff is pretty awful — Mendez is positively Joffrey-like, so the way he presents as a comical figure is squick-inducing. Then again, Kohan does like to be provocative — see Weeds’ track record of WTF moments — so maybe decisions like this are the price of admission.

They also, probably, contribute to the singular flavor of the series. It keeps you off-balance: it’s funny when it shouldn’t be funny, it’s serious when you’re not expecting it to be. This makes its surprising moments of connection and inspiration all the more powerful. An unusual show, and a memorable one.

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