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Josh Reviews Orange is the New Black Season One!

A few weeks ago, my wife convinced me that we needed to check out Netflix’s series (that was released over the summer) Orange is the New Black.  I am glad she did, because we tore through the series’ thirteen-episode first season in just a little over a week, and I am thrilled that work is already underway on a season two.

Created by Jenji Kohan, the series is based on Piper Kerman’s memoir Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison.  The set-up of the show is strongly based on Ms. Kerman’s memoir, though from what I have read of the book it seems like the show starts to go in some very different directions by the end of the first season.

The series begins on Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling)’s first day in prison.  Piper is a happy yuppie, engaged to be married to Larry (Jason Biggs), when she is arrested for smuggling drugs — a crime she committed a decade earlier.  She self-surrenders, and in the blink of an eye everything she knew of her life is changed, and she is in prison.  The series follows Piper’s attempts to navigate the completely unfamiliar and sometimes scary world of a women’s correctional facility, while also trying to hold on to what had been her “normal” life on the outside through her phone calls and visits from her fiancé and family.

More than anything, I love the tone of Orange is the New Black.  The show is a drama, and doesn’t shy away from dealing with some tough territory.  We see the many small (and occasionally large) humiliations that Chapman (all the inmates refer to one another by their last names, rather than their first) must undergo, and as we get to know many of the other inmates who she encounters, we learn about their stories — almost all of which are terribly sad.  But this isn’t Oz.  The show is, surprisingly, very seldom downbeat.  There is a lot of humor to be found in Orange is the New Black.  The show is goofy at times.  More than that, while I wouldn’t say that the stories on the show are life-affirming — one of the saddest aspects of the show is how utterly without hope so many of the inmates are, in comparison to Chapman, who feels like she is just passing through — but there is a joy to the show in the way it brings to life all of the incredibly unique women who Chapman encounters in prison.

Although the early going focuses on Chapman, the show quickly begins to flesh out many of the other women, and by the end of the thirteen episodes we have gotten to know and like many of the other women incarcerated with Chapman (and strongly dislike a few).  Each episode features a few scenes that take place in the past, giving us glimpses of these women’s lives before they twenty to jail.  Yes, that is the structure that Lost made so famous, but it works so well I can forgive a little lack of originality in this area.  I also like that the flashbacks are generally very short, taking up just a few minutes each episode.  So I never felt they overstayed their welcome — the flashback scenes are short snippets, just a a taste of what these women’s lives were like before, and how they got on the path that lead them to prison.  (I liked how the flashbacks often didn’t show us exactly when or how the characters committed the crime that led to their arrest and incarceration — rather, the flashbacks tend to be more about when/how they first stepped onto a bad path.)

The cast of mostly unknowns is, to a tee, perfect.  Not since David Simon’s shows The Wire and Treme have I seen such a wonderfully diverse cast.  The ensemble of Orange is the New Black is made up of women from so many different races and backgrounds (there is even a fantastic transgender character, played by transgendered actress Laverne Cox) and body-types.  Taylor Schilling is terrific as Piper Chapman.  She is sympathetic while not shying away from showing us a lot of Chapman’s bad behavior.  Piper Chapman is not a saint.  She is spoiled and narcissistic and often pretty clueless about the effect of her words or actions on others.  But she’s a great heroine.  You invest in her struggles, and want her to get everything figured out, both inside the joint and out.

The only a handful of performers in the ensemble I had heard of before, most notably Jason Biggs and That 70’s Show’s Laura Prepon.  Both performers do great work.  Ms. Prepon really subverts what I had expected of her, and she takes what could have been a one-dimensional bad-guy role (her character, Alex Vause, is the one who named Piper, thus landing her in prison) and showing us so many different shades of her character.  (Credit also goes, of course, to show-runner Jenji Kohen and a great team of writers for giving Alex such depth.)  Jason Biggs plays a familiar Jason Biggs character — the like able but somewhat dense and selfish well-off dude — but here too Mr. Biggs’ great work combined with some terrific writing creates a character with more depth than I had expected.  I didn’t much like Larry by the time I got to the end of the season — by the shows’s nature, we’re pretty unabashedly in Piper’s court — but I didn’t hate him either.  He’s a very human character.

There is also Nichols, a former drug addict played by Natasha Lyonne (making Orange is the New Black something of an American Pie reunion with her and Jason Biggs!).  Ms. Lyonne had great success as a child actor before falling into personal trouble, so it’s fantastic to see her doing such spectacular work in this great role.  Nichols is a fascinating character, very lovable but certainly touched by tragedy.  She is one of the characters I am most exited to get into deeper in season two.

Then there is Kate Mulgrew.  I never much liked her work as Captain Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager (Ms. Mulgrew has had a long and varied career, but that’s what she is best known for to me), but I really blame Voyager’s terrible writing more than I do any failing in Ms. Mulgrew herself.  If I had any doubts in her abilities as an actor, this show vanishes them forever.  She is absolutely phenomenal is Red, the fearsome Russian head of the prison’s kitchen.  Under spiky red-died hair and a thick Russian accent, Ms. Mulgrew has created a seminal TV character, fearsome and lovable and tragic all at the same time.  It’s an extraordinarily impressive achievement.  Just wonderful.  (Of course, geeks like myself knew that Ms. Mulgrew could rock a Russian accent, from her work voicing The Red Claw twenty years ago on Batman: The Animated Series!)

But really, the people who should be praised are all of the other incredible performers in the show, this great ensemble of actors who were unknown to me beforehand but who forevermore I will now watch out for, and will associate with these characters.  Michelle Hurst as Miss Claudette, Chapman’s strict-and-proper cube-mate.  Danielle Brooks as Taystee, the boisterous, happy, big-haired inmate (who adds a lock of Chapman’s blonde hair to her own early in the season).  Her friend Poussey, played by Samira Wiley.  Uzo Aduba as “Crazy Eyes.”  Yael Stone as Morello, a thick-accented, lipstick wearing girl who has hung a lot of her hopes and dreams on a planned reunion with her boyfriend when she gets out of prison.  Dascha Polanco as Diaz, who finds herself falling for one of the guards, and Elizabeth Rodriguez as her strong-willed mother, also incarcerated in the same prison.  Vicky Jeudy as Watson, who as a child was a track star before falling in with the wrong crowd.  Laverne Cox as Burset, the prison’s transgendered hairdresser.  Lea DeLaria as “Boo Boo,” the butch lesbian who starts off as one of the show’s most fearsome characters, but becomes one of the most lovable by the end of season one.  Constance Shulman as the yoga instructor and former marijuana farmer.  Then there are all the guards, equally memorable.  But now I am just listing names.  Watch the show and discover all of these wonderful characters and performers for yourself.

The season did not end in the way I expected.  Were this to be all we’d get of Orange is the New Black, the season finale’s ending would be a real twist into tragedy for the show, as quite a number of bad things happen and Chapman finds herself doing something she never imagined she would be capable of doing.  But seeing as a season two is in the works, I suspect this is more of an attention-grabbing cliffhanger rather than a real shift in the tone and direction of the show.  I suppose we’ll see!

Bravo to Netflix for backing this unique new show.  I am glad to have entered the world of Orange is the New Black, and I can’t wait to return.

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