Orange Is the New Black: Sharp Dramatic Comedy with a Political Message
Originally published at The Horn. This covers the first seven episodes and has only minimal spoilers.
Orange is The New Black, the latest Netflix original series, seems to have arrived with a little less fanfare than usual. Perhaps that’s because the last (semi-)original series was Arrested Development, the most awaited television reunion in recent memory. It almost seems like the disappointment of so many fans’ unrealistically high hopes — that AD Season 4 would be the best television event ever in the history of moving images — is carrying over into this new project.
Slowly, critics and viewers are realizing that this new series from Jenji Kohan, creator of Weeds, is one of the best new dramas of recent seasons. Dylan Matthews of Wonkblog called it “the best TV show about prison ever made.” Weeds certainly had its high points and very low points during its 7 season sprawl. Orange is more tightly plotted but just as funny as that show’s finest moments, while backed with a premise that is at once both compelling and flexible.
Based on a memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman, the tv series wisely renames the protagonist to Piper Chapman, setting them free from perfect devotion to the source material. Chapman, played with a touch of realistic albeit irritating naivete by Taylor Schilling, helped smuggle drug money for her girlfriend Alex Vause (a cold but nuanced performance by Laura Prepon) a decade ago. Breaking away, she builds as normal a life as possible — even engaged to a fiance played by Jason Biggs — only to be forced to take 15 months in a Federal prison for that long-buried crime.
Chapman shares some similarities with Weeds‘ Nancy Botwin. Both are middle-class White women who get forced out of their comfort zones into a very different world. If the show centered only on the experience of a White woman going to jail, it wouldn’t sustain nearly the attention that Orange deserves. To continue the Weeds comparison, the supporting characters are often the most interesting, but unlike that series they frequently get to take the show’s complete focus. Once the boundaries of Piper’s penitentiary world are established, each episode pauses to reflect on one of the women and how they got there.
These flashbacks aren’t about romanticizing crime or even depicting the most dramatic moments that led to each character’s eventual conviction. Instead, they show how normal people end up in prison, breaking the idea that there’s a certain kind of person who becomes a criminal. These women aren’t “innocent” but neither are they evil. They are a lot like you and me: it’s just their bad choices have taken years off their lives while we, for the most part, have gotten away with ours.
The casting shines across the board, with strong performances by many fine actresses. Kate Mulgrew steals almost every scene she’s in as Red, a Russian convict in charge of the kitchen. The casting of Laverne Cox, a transgender Black woman, as Sophia Burset, a transgender firefighter turned inmate, is
already being hailed as a historic moment. But this casting is no gimmick—Burset’s story is emotionally wrenching and handled with incredible sensitivity, turning her episode 3 showcase into one of the series’ strongest episodes. The men, though relegated to supporting roles, are just as skillful — Michael Harney as Chapman’s counselor, Sam Healy, and Pablo Schreiber as the repulsive “Pornstache” are two of the standouts.
Orange is the New Black is without a doubt political. In the first episode, Healy openly questions why a crack dealer can get 9 months while a woman who accidentally ran over a postman gets years — yet it’s condemnation of the prison-industrial complex never feels preachy. It’s clear the system rarely metes out rehabilitation or justice, but we’re led to this conclusion through a genuine exploration of the lives of the shows characters.
Orange made me laugh, both when exploring a deep vein of black humor but also plotlines flavored with that trademark Jenji Kohan absurdity. Each episode feels relatively self-contained, yet lays the elements of satisfying, serialized developments. There are enough cliffhangers that you may find yourself watching “just one more episode” ’til way past bedtime.
I haven’t finished all of the first season. Based on the first seven episodes, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Orange Is the New Black is the best Netflix series yet and could be the best new drama of 2013.
Update: I’ve finished the whole series since, so look for a review of the final episodes, and a more spoiler-filled take on the whole season, soon.