orange is the new black
TV, 2013, 4.5 stars
Created: Jenji Kohan (from the novel by Piper Kerman)
First Run: 2013-1019 (7 Seasons)
2023 note: It seems ironic now that Netflix original programming was launched by a show about women, and largely about queer women.
This show is so addictive it is not freaking funny. You just can’t beat prison shows for their diverse range of characters, including sexy heroines with fatal flaws. We saw it in Bad Girls, but Orange Is the New Black is an entirely different beast. This show is flat out funny, moving, compelling and authentic, with the kind of twisted black humour in the face of life's horrors that made shows like Six Feet Under and Weeds addictive viewing.
I’ll be honest, I was not hooked from the beginning. The first three episodes, with its complex exposition and waaaay too much of that dude famous for screwing a pie, were almost enough to turn me off. It is still funny, and the exposition is necessary for us to get to know Piper, but it does take a while to find it's feet (the rewind-worthy shower scene in the first minute nonwithstanding).
If you are struggling to see what all the fuss is about, stick with it at least until episode 4 in Season 1. For me, that’s where this show really kicks up a gear.
Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) is an entitled, spoiled white girl with a rebellious streak who is sentenced to 15 months for a youthful indiscretion. In her early twenties she fell in love with Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), and followed her around the world, despite knowing that Alex was part of an international drug cartel. She carried a suitcase of money one time, which was enough to get her named in a case ten years later after her relationship with Alex is ancient history.
Piper’s fiance Larry (pie-boy Jason Biggs), while taken aback at first, is incredibly supportive. So Piper goes scared shitless off to prison. To her surprise (but not ours), her old flame Alex is doing time too, and Piper is caught between her outside life and her inside needs.
It takes Piper a while to discover that this journey is meant to teach her to have the courage to be who she really is. In the meantime she's a one-woman freakshow. It is borderline psychotic how many time she sticks her foot in it. But no matter how crazy the other inmates are, no matter how many moments of pure hilarity and shocking violence, the show never loses its focus. Schilling carries a huge load in season one, and it was a relief in later seasons when the writers took to the surrounding cast with gusto and showed us there are more than a few sides to the story. In time, we begin to know and love these supporting characters as much as we care about Piper herself.
In between disasters Piper shows real grit, ingenuity, and an underlying stubbornness to fail. Each time we start to lose faith in her, she comes back strong and we realise that she's worth cheering for after all. This pattern continues all the way until the final frame of the final season.
The supporting cast really is magical. Led by Captain Janeway herself Kate Mulgrew as queen-bee Red (seriously, even as a Russian criminal mastermind she oozes class), Natasha Lyonne (the gayest straight girl in movies), comedienne Lea DeLaria, transexual actress Laverne Cox, an almost-unrecognisable Taryn Manning, the truly astonishing Uzo Aduba, Samira Wiley (who broke our hearts...), they are all so freaking great. This is without a doubt more female talent in one show than has ever been seen before.
That this show comes from Netflix is irrelevant – showrunner Jenji Kohan (the woman behind Weeds) has brought to life something every bit as good as anything Showtime or HBO have ever dreamed up. For instance, one of the brilliant decisions Kohan makes is to allow us to escape from prison sometimes into the backstories of the individual inmates. They know they have an amazing cast, and they give them moments to shine.
Season one is the Piper and Alex show. The chemistry is palpable, the sex scenes hot, and the visceral reaction Piper and Alex have to each other that both repels and attracts is enormously fun. I was doubtful about Laure Prepon at first, I don’t think I would have guessed at her range by her previous material, but she fits into Alex’s skin perfectly. Due to some scheduling conflicts Prepon is absent in a couple of the middle seasons, and she is sorely missed.
If this is the future of television, I'm totally on board. You could still eke it out bit by bit to prolong the fun, I dare you. Me, I had to binge each season the first weekend it came online each time. I’m just so excited that we have reached that point where content providers like Netflix can make money out of beautiful, edgy, script-driven material like this. It’s everything I ever wanted from television.