Orange is the New Black is the latest original series to make its way on
to Netflix – joining such quality programming as House of Cards, Hemlock Grove, and, of course, the resurrected Arrested Development, to name a few – and in my humble opinion, it’s their best yet.
Frankly, I don’t know how this got passed on by other networks like Showtime and HBO, but somehow it did. Now, I have another reason to hold on to my Netflix account in the future, you know, other than movies like “Class of Nuke ‘Em High” and “Miami Connection.”
The Lionsgate-produced dramedy (I like “drama-com” better) is based on the similarly-titled memoir by Piper Kerman, “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Woman’s Prison” and the best part about it being on Netflix is, as always, the service allows for straight-up binging, as all 13 episodes of the first season are available at one time. There’s no waiting around for one, whole agonizing week to watch the next episode. All I had to do was hit the green “A” button on my XBOX 360 controller and – BAM! – I get a brand new, hour-long episode to watch right away. If you have thirteen hours to kill (which I didn’t – I would watch three or four episodes in one sitting), it’s like a really good, super-long movie.
That being said, “really good” is waaaaay too weak of a word to describe this series. I don’t feel like getting out the thesaurus to come up with some obscure, seldom-used, fifty-point word at this time, so I’ll simply call Orange is the New Black (which I’ll refer to as “OitNB” from now on – to save time) a fantastic series and leave it at that.
Created by Jenji Kohan (whose name sounds like an ancient samurai’s moniker… or a character from “Star Wars”), who is the same woman who brought the similar-in-tone dramedy Weeds to Showtime, “OitNB” should be considered, from this point on, as the blueprint on how to write a TV show with an ensemble cast. So many shows, like (as much as it pains to me write this) American Horror Story: Asylum, create dozens of interesting, multilayered characters – only to forget about them for long periods of time, in order to focus on unconventional and bizarre story lines and plot twists.
However, that’s not the case with “OitNB,” because the characters ARE the plot and the plot IS the characters (if that makes any sense).
The story focuses on Piper Chapman (wow – way to protect your anonymity, Piper KERman), who goes from a New York City lifestyle filled with Lemon Juice Detox Diets, trips to exotic locales, and a line of designer soaps that are about to hit the shelves at Barneys to toilet hooch (aka – “pruno”), trips to the SHU, and mouthfuls of “prison loaf.”
In layman’s terms, Piper Chapman has gone from a fairly privileged life in a New York City apartment to a completely abnormal one in Litchfield Federal Prison for Women. To say, “Piper Chapman is in for some culture shock,” would be a bit of an understatement.
But Piper’s going to be okay, at least that’s what she tells her fiancée Larry (played by a surprisingly decent Jason Biggs – who still, after all these years, manages
to have a scene in an episode where he masturbates into a sock… but at least there’s no pie this time) and herself. See, Piper has read books and internet articles regarding the rituals and ins-and-outs of prison life, so she’s prepared. So, I ask you the reader – What can POSSIBLY go wrong for Piper Chapman while she serves 1 and ½ years for some drug smuggling she did when she was in her experimental “lesbian” phase ten years ago?
Well, if nothing went wrong for Piper Chapman then there wouldn’t be 13 episodes of “OitNB,” am I right?
Oh boy, am I right. Actually, if truth be told, nothing much goes RIGHT for Piper (or “Chapman,” as she’s called by inmates and guards alike, throughout her stay at Litchfield). She’s kind of like the “Larry David of Litchfield,” as she never knows when to shut up and is always saying the wrong thing to the wrong person.
Even on her first day, as the other white inmates (the show is unflinchingly stereotypical and racist, which, apparently, is how the prison system really is) catch her up on the do’s and don’ts of cafeteria life, she manages to insult the one person you don’t want to piss off – the one that controls the food. That person is Galina Reznikov, who’s better known by her nickname – Red (played by Kate Mulgrew, you know, Captain Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager). Red is a Russian hard-ass, who not only runs the kitchen, but also controls the flow of contraband through one of her produce vendors and has a small army of inmates with “mommy issues” under her control that she calls her daughters.
Through a series of non-intrusive flashbacks, we see that Red had some issues of her own before she got sent away – like trying to gain some type of power/respect in the masculine world of the Russian mafia. Respect and power seem to be reoccurring themes in “OitNB.” I mean, the setting is a prison environment after all.
As complex of a character that Red is, she is not the series’ primary focus. That burden falls square onto the shoulders of up-and-coming actress Taylor Schilling (who’s biggest role before “OitNB” was making out and breaking down with Zac Efron in last year’s mandatory Nicholas Sparks schlock-fest, “The Lucky One”), who tackles the aforementioned lead role of Piper Chapman.
Like I was saying before, Piper is a privileged princess who somehow wound up in jail, through no fault of her own (at least that’s how she sees it). The problem is – it very much IS Piper’s fault she’s in jail, as she’s losing out on 15 months (of that new life she’s itching to start with her fiancée Larry), due to some dumb, impulsive and illegal behavior that she happened to partake in 10 years prior to meeting the steady-as-a-rock, predictably plain and out-of-work journalist Larry. It seems that before good ol’ Larry came along, Piper was involved with a dangerous and sexy drug runner named Alex Vause – in both the romantic and business sense.
In fact, when Alex sauntered up to Piper during their fateful first meeting in some random dive bar, Piper asked Alex, “What do you do?” When Alex so bluntly replied, “I work for a major international drug cartel.”
Piper, of course, laughed at what she thought was a ridiculous and sarcastic non-truth, but what she didn’t know was – Alex was very serious, despite that attractive smile on her face.
Oops. Did I forget to tell that Alex was a female – and an extremely attractive one
at that (played by the “I-didn’t-realize-she-was-that-tall” Laura Prepon)? That’s right, ladies and gentlemen. Not only is “OitNB” a prison dramedy, but it’s a lesbian-themed prison dramedy – and I’m not just talking about the graphically-depicted bouts of girl-on-girl action that, in prison, is apparently just as normal and routine as taking a shower or going to church or the library (which, by the way, are all secret spots that these “very lonely, but not gay” women like to meet up and…uhh… chat.)
Yes, Piper and Alex had a special “thing” going on, ten years before she met Larry and that special “thing” got her in a lot of trouble with the law. For Piper, the arrest came unexpectedly and almost ripped her relationship with Larry apart – and that was BEFORE he found out that this Alex Vauss character was not only her former drug partner, but her former partner-partner, as well.
One of the biggest underlying storylines of the series is – Did Alex snitch on Piper? And why? So, Piper is now on her way to jail and just about ready to spend the next 15 months reflecting on her past misdeeds, miscalculations and mistakes – not to mention her frayed and tarnished relationship with the confused and punch-drunk Larry (you’d feel like you got clubbed with a Bryce Harper bat-to-the-face too, if you had to deal with the crap that Piper put Larry through).
During one particularly bad day (she was denied food on a prison-wide scale after inadvertently insulting Red’s cafeteria food… to her face), she runs outside to the yard to cry – because Piper read in her “Prison for Dummies” book that you should never let other inmates see you cry, as they’ll perceive you to be weak – and guess who she runs into. I’ll give you a hint – it rhymes with “malex.”
That is correct, her former lesbian lover who may or may not have turned her in and ruined her life happens to be trapped in prison (which is a series of one confined, claustrophobic space after another) with her. Wow, Piper Chapman is one lucky girl, huh?
Whether or not Alex dimed on Piper or not is answered fairly early, at least for the viewer. However, the truth is kept from Piper, due to a strategy employed by Larry, which are, of course, to keep Piper away from Alex). To his credit, it works at first, but the raw sexual attraction that Piper and Alex have for each other is just too strong and, needless to say, some prison naughtiness ensues.
In fact, there’s naughtiness on every level. It seems that everybody is up to no good and has some sort of twisted and warped agenda – and that’s just the prison staff. The journey that each character goes through is an impressive feat of storytelling and screenwriting (which is shared by Kerman, Kohan and five other writers). There are so many fantastically fleshed-out individuals that Piper meets along the way and, like I just said, a great deal of them are either awful people from the start or turn out to be awful people at the end.
It would be impossible for me to mention everybody in this impressive cast of characters. So, I’ll just name a few. There’s Officer George Mendez (aka “pornstache”), whose facial hair is such an outstanding feature that inmates need only place their index finger to their upper lip when they talk about him. Mendez is played with a snake-like, sadistic glee by The Wire veteran Pablo Schreiber, who would much rather grab an inmate’s chest during a strip-search than help them with their problems. In the last few episodes, Mendez actually shows some form of pseudo-emotion, although it’s attached to severely questionable circumstances, but they’re feelings nonetheless. Even though he’s a horribly sick person, he’s my favorite character in the show.
In the realm of “OitNB,” the inmates might not run the asylum, but they sure have better morals than the ones who do. There’s prison guard supervisor Joe Caputo (played by character actor Nick Sandow), who seemed like a nice guy… for about a minute. I quickly figured out he wasn’t one of the good eggs, when he whipped out a box of tissues and some hand lotion immediately following his first meeting with Piper on her first day at Litchfield.
Piper’s counselor Sam Healey (Michael Harney) seemed like he was in her corner too… at first. That is, until Piper participated in some (ahem) “inappropriate lesbian activity” and Healey instantly became Piper’s worst enemy – throwing her into the isolated SHU (stands for special housing unit – aka “the hole”) for dancing provocatively with another prisoner. Oh that Piper, she’s always getting into trouble.
And who was that “prisoner” that she was dancing with SO provocatively? Why, it was her former lover Alex, of course? I’d be lying if I said I didn’t see that coming (so, I hope that didn’t constitute a “spoiler”), as Piper and Alex eventually pick up romantically where they left off – much to the chagrin of her fiancée Larry, who was afraid of that very thing happening.
Well, here we are – Piper’s causing drama again. Actually, if truth be told, Piper is
far from the only one with a dramatic past AND present life, but she sure has a knack for getting involved in the crazy lives of her fellow inmates. When I said before that Mendez was my favorite character, I think I lied. The inmates, as a whole, are my favorite character of the series.
And Piper manages to piss all of them off.
I told you about Red, who eventually gave-in and let Piper eat – after Piper made her a homemade remedy for her bad back made out of chewed up jalapenos. Then, there’s Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (who might be a long-lost relative of Crazy Eyez Killa from Curb Your Enthusiasm), who was the one who provided Piper with the jalapenos from the kitchen. She falls in love with Piper – who she affectionately refers to as “dandelion” – writes her love poems, and tries to make Piper her “wife.”
Of course, Piper disrespects by trying to “let her down easy.” So, one night, Crazy Eyes (who’s fantastically played by another newcomer, Uzo Aduba) urinates on Piper’s floor while giving her the “1000-yard stare.” Through flashbacks, we learn that this wild-eyed African-American woman has white parents and comes from a well-to-do family. See, just like I said – great writing.
Then, there’s Tiffany Doggett, who’s also known as “Pennsatucky,” who’s brought to life in Jesus-loving Technicolor by the unrecognizable Taryn Manning – who transforms herself from a sexy pictorial and the cover of Playboy to a nasty meth habit and a mouthful of brown, crusty teeth. We learn that Pennsatucky was just leaving the abortion clinic after her fifth “operation,” when her nurse said to her, “That’s five – one more and you get a free one.”
Pennsatucky, of course, feels disrespected. So, she grabs a shotgun, walks past the protestors, back into the clinic, and – BLAM! – Instant jail time. During her trial, this poor, mixed-up murderer is represented – pro bono – by a Christian law firm behind the defensive strategy of religious intent and – BLAM! – Instant religious fervor. So, now she stalks the halls of Litchfield trying to spread her Christian craziness amongst the inmates. And of course, Piper (who Pennsatucky non-affectionately refers to as “College”) manages to piss her off by not taking the religion seriously.
I could go on and on with the character bios, but I’ll keep it simple and just name two more standouts. I smell an Emmy (that is, if Netflix show can garner Emmy nominations, but that’s a whole other story) for the criminally underrated (cue: rim shot) Natasha Lyonne as the sunshine-filled, girl-loving, recovering junky. And Constance Shulman is weirdly intoxicating as Yoga Jones – the flaky
hippy with a heart of gold.
Not to mention, the first season instantly leaves you wanting more, with one of the most daring (and abrubt) cliffhangers I’ve seen on a seasonal episodic TV show… and I remember the whole “Who Shot JR?” campaign on “Dallas.”
If you love a show that you can instantly binge-watch all 13 episodes in one sitting, then “OitNB” is for you. It combines an ensemble comedy like “Shameless” with a poignant drama filled with twisting storylines that slowly unfold like sexy origami. And, just for good measure, they happen to throw in some of the best-written characters and sequences of dialogue that I’ve seen since The Wire and The Sopranos were the wardens that locked things down.
Bold statements to make, but I think that Litchfield has room for one more celly. That is, if you’re interested.