Netflix is riding pretty high after two of their exclusive series–“House of Cards” and “Top of the Lake”–were both nominated for multiple Emmy awards. I would be very surprised if their latest series “Orange is the New Black” doesn’t pick up a few nominations in 2014.
Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) is living the NYC yuppie dream. She and her best friend have a new line of homemade soaps and lotions ready to go (they even have an agreement to sell through Barney’s), and she’s engaged to a free-lance writer, Larry Bloom (Jason Biggs). She’s beautiful and smart, with a degree from Smith, and her future looks golden.
Then…well, she has to go to prison for a year.
During her post-college “experimental phase,” Piper fell in love with exotic, exciting Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), the revelation of which definitely surprises Larry. But he’s okay with it–so, fine, you were with a woman for awhile, I can handle that.
The downside is that Alex was a large-scale heroin importer, and Piper was implicated. Thus, Piper is off to a Federal Penitentiary to spend a year. “Orange is the New Black” follows Piper’s new life, as she learns the ropes of the prison world and meets her fellow inmates. There’s a meth-head evangelist wanna-be, and a sweet Italian girl who’s been planning her wedding for three years in the pen. One of Piper’s first lessons is do NOT insult the Russian cook, Red (Kate Mulgrew), or she will starve you out. Piper meets the various guards and administrators who will (ostensibly) control things during her stay. Her cube-mate is an older Hatian woman rumored to have killed a man–Piper is warned to sleep with one eye open. There’s also a nun (who either chained herself to a nuclear power plant or killed a man, depending on whose story you believe), a hippy yoga instructor, a mother and daughter both in prison, and a pair of young inmates who are truly in love. One of my favorites is Nicky Nicole (Natasha Lyonne), a tough girl who occasionally shows a sense of humor and a warm heart–Nicky isn’t always a central character, but she’s frequently the glue that holds the plot together. Then Piper meets the inmate who will cause her the most turbulence during her stay…
Alex. Her former lover and partner-in-crime, who also named her as being part of the drug ring is now serving time in the very same prison as Piper, and Piper is most definitely not pleased by this reunion.
“Orange is the New Black” doesn’t present itself as being hard-core and gritty like “Oz”–there’s even a joke about that in the first episode. Neither is it a comedy. I’m not sure I’d even call it a “dramedy.” Some of the characters–Red, e.g., and one of the officers–approach parody, but they don’t cross the line. The whole prison is full of screwballs (it’s prison, not Bible camp) and, while the show lean toward being lighthearted, there are moments of intensity and great seriousness.
Piper’s relationship with her fiancee, Larry, has its ups and downs as well. Initially he shows concern and horror during his visits. Later, he realizes that he’s in a sort of prison himself, an emotion he lets through during visits and phonecalls.
The relationships between the inmates themselves, between inmates and their guards, and between inmates and their loved ones are all complex, and “Orange is the New Black” never gets trite or overly cutesy. Even when the girls are laughing, they are stuck in a deadly serious place. Each episode shows flashbacks to one inmate’s story, so we can see something of how they ended up going wrong, and going to prison.
Netflix does a splendid job with this show. The writing is crisp, and the actors are brilliant (especially Schilling, Mulgrew, Prepon, Lyonne, and Biggs, but everyone does an excellent job). The only complaint I have is that Netflix released the entire 13-episode season all at once. This is really a good thing. The problem is that I binge-watched this show over two days, and now I’m stuck waiting another damn year to find out what happened in the season finale, when Piper…
I won’t say. To reveal the cliffhanger would be truly criminal.
Grade: A (On Netflix Streaming; this show is most definitely not for kids–lots of f-bombs, violence, naked boobs and butts, and not-explicit-but-you-know-damned-sure-what-that-one-girl-is-doing-to-the-other-one sex)