Orange is the New Black Review: A Mesmerizing Look at Life Behind Bars

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Netflix has another bona fide hit on its hands with this witty, absorbing new show about a women’s prison from Weeds creator Jenji Kohan.

Based on Piper Kerman’s 2010 memoir of the same name, Orange follows the story of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a privileged Brooklynite whose checkered past catches up to her when she’s indicted for money laundering.  You see, before Piper became the happily engaged, preppy blonde  who starts a line of artisanal lotions with her best friend, she was the wild blonde who entered into a lesbian relationship with Alex (That 70s Show‘s Laura Prepon), a smuggler for an international drug cartel.  Once, Piper helped Alex by carrying a suitcase full of money across European borders.  The rest is history.

A women’s prison seems like a bleak setting for a story, but one of the show’s best traits is its surprising amount of levity.  As with Weeds, Kohan uses humor to explore some dark topics.  Her comedy is sharp, and comes from often unexpected places.  During a visitation with her fiancée Larry (Jason Biggs), Piper’s only request is for him to not watch any episodes of Mad Men until she’s released.  “We’ll binge-watch them together!” she earnestly exclaims.

Similarly, Kohan expertly walks a tight line when it comes to the depiction of racial segregation in the prison.  Her all-too-realistic vision sees people from different races broken off into separate “tribes” as soon as they arrive at the gates.  Sometimes, this is played for laughs.  Others, it is used to explore the complexities these characters’ different socio-economic backgrounds.  The same goes for her portrayal of the prison guard staff who run the institution.  Anyone who knows anything about the American penal system knows that it has its fair share of flaws, and they are on full display here.  Still, the show pulls off a nifty feat of making some profound political statements without being overbearing.  There is a lightness throughout the series that makes the harsher moments feel very authentic.

Piper is the show’s central character, and its clear that she’s supposed to be the relatable lens through which we view this new world she’s entering.  Schilling imbues her with the perfect amount of neurosis and naïveté to make her a believable fish out of water.  But this is not just Piper’s story.  During her time at the Litchfield Correctional Facility, we’re introduced to a slew of unique characters who all have their own tales to tell.  Through flashbacks, each episode delves into the life of a different inmate to discover who she is, why she’s made the choices she’s made, and just how she got to be locked up in the first place.

Some standouts include the stellar Kate Mulgrew (Star Trek: Voyager) as prison chef and ruthless mother-hen Red, Natasha Lyonne (American Pie) as recovering drug addict Nicky, and Uzo Aduba as a hilariously aloof inmate nicknamed “Crazy Eyes.” There’s also an activist nun, a post-op transexual, a meth head-turned-religious fanatic, and three sisters and their mother who have strained relations to say the least.  This might sound like a lot to take in over just 13 episodes, but Kohan weaves these women’s stories together brilliantly, and nothing ever feels overcrowded.  Some of these character’s aren’t too likeable.  In fact, some–especially the prison staff–are downright detestable.  And yet, each person’s story is as compelling as the last.

The over-arching conflict of the season is, of course, Piper’s struggle to find herself.  Is she the person she once was when she was cavorting around with Alex, or is she the new woman she’s made herself out to be with Larry? Things aren’t made any easier for her by the fact that Alex is locked up in the same prison, and Larry parlays their new relationship dynamic into a New York Times article and guest spot on a This American Life-type radio show. As Piper herself so aptly puts it when talking to a young teen in the Scared Straight program, “Other people aren’t the scariest part of prison.  It’s coming face-to-face with who you really are.”

In short, there is truly no other show like Orange out there right now.  It would be easy to dismiss this as merely the female version of HBO’s Oz, but that’d be making too rash of a generalization.  Sure, there are other prison dramas out there, but I’ve never seen one that was so character-driven, with the perfect mix of humor and heart. Netflix has already renewed the series for a second season, which is exciting given the doozy of an ending in the finale. Presumably, as the show progresses, it will veer further and further away from Kerman’s memoir and into more original territory.  Normally this would have me worried, but with this talented of a cast and Kohan’s capable hands steering the reins, I’m game for whatever these jumpsuit-clad ladies have in store.  Grade: A-

By Mike Papirmeister

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