Orange Is The New Black is the fourth series of the year to unravel in its entirety as part of Netflix’s new TV production/distribution model. It also appears to be, after a quick survey of of the critics, the most successful of the four: a genuinely well crafted story of a sweet WASPy girl and her 15 month prison sentence.
Let’s bitch it out…
*Note: I’ll be reviewing two episodes of Orange Is The New Black every Friday. For now we’re focusing exclusively on the pilot
To say that Orange Is The New Black breaks the mold is a bit of an understatement. Of Netflix’s four series to date, it’s the only one from a female creator (Jenji Kohan, of Weeds fame) featuring a nearly all-female cas. Oh yeah, and it’s set in a prison. This folks, is not your conventional TV drama.
Kohan’s familiarity with the luxuries of cable are evident in this well-paced, well-written, well-acted pilot episode: naughty language, T&A (including, shockingly enough, from lead actress Taylor Schilling) and network taboos like used tampons (on the breakfast table!) all make an appearance. It’s easy to look at the pilot and decry its envelope pushing triggers, but to do so – indeed to pigeonhole Orange in any way – would be to overlook how successful the series is. There’s a deftly balanced blend of genres and tones here, often within the same scene, but the result is never tonal whiplash.
Any viewers familiar with Weeds knows that this is a delicate balance to achieve (see S1-3 for the good, S4-7 for the bad). Like other reviewers, I think that Orange actually does a better job than Weeds. Perhaps it’s the gravity of the situation: the series opens with Piper Chapman (Schilling) voluntarily surrendering herself for a 15 month prison sentence for her minor role in a drug smuggling ring a decade earlier. This is a crime nearing its statute of limitations, lurking on the cusp of white collar crime (she carried the drug money, then ran) but the reality of the situation, as Warden Healey (Michael Harney) remarks, is that the system doesn’t make any sense.
And so Chapman ends up in
jail prison with a colourful, fully-realized cast of supporting characters. This is very clearly “Chapman’s episode”, if only because she is the audience surrogate as we enter the prison. Through her we learn what to say and what not to say, where to stand when the lights begin flashing and when it’s best to keep your head down and your mouth shut. I’ll admit that I spent the majority of the pilot waiting for the inevitable “prison is terrible” initiation scene that always seems to rear its head in prison dramas, but the episode wisely plays out without any major calamities. Clearly some smoothing over will need to be done to appease Red (Kate Mulgrew) after Chapman insults her prison cooking, but there’s no vicious rape or toothbrush shiv. Instead, as Healy suggests, women fight with gossip and rumours*
*I quote Healy several times in this review, but I also think it’s important to acknowledge the clear implication that the man is out of touch with what’s happening on the ground floor. He gives good soundbite, but we should probably take his words with a grain of salt moving forward
Anchoring this pilot with humour, pathos and shock is Schilling. Her Chapman is certainly a bit of a privileged dolt when it comes to believing that other inmates are interested in her well-being, but I found myself relating to her optimistic approach. Healey may dictate that she not make friends, but Chapman will incarcerated for 15 long months and no amount of repeating the mantra that it’s only temporary will fix the fact that prison is a communal experience: no privacy, no real solitude and no independence. Without the help of the other women, Chapman will have a very lonely existence…and the show won’t be very exciting to watch.
- Of the supporting cast, Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) emerges as the early favourite if only because she has the most outrageous lines. Lyonne has a natural gruffness to her (dating all the way back to her most well-known role in American Pie). It’s certainly not hard to believe Nicky is the kind of girl who survives – and maybe even thrives – in a prison environment
- Admittedly with so many female characters, all of whom go by their surnames, I found it difficult to catch all of the names. I know I recognize Chapman’s other cellmate, the older woman who had the heart attack who guides Chapman through the motions on day one, but I can’t figure out who the actress is (Update: It’s Lin Tucci – Mama from Showgirls!). This could prove challenging since there’s still more characters to come!
- Thus far, none of the guards have made much of an impression, aside from their casual indifference to the prisoners. Pornstache (Pablo Schreiber), the guard who proves to be inept with technology, may be the most memorable, though the stache certainly feels more at home in the show’s spiritual predecessors when women-in-prison was more of a cult/exploitation text
- I’ve read that the flashback structure will stick around, though in upcoming episodes we’ll spend time exploring the backgrounds of some of the other women. The flashbacks strike me as a necessary evil: on one hand they open up the series to tell stories in a more visually dynamic fashion, but it also feels like an opportunity for the audience to escape from the confines of life in prison. Admittedly they are well employed without being redundant, but Chapman’s current situation is so interesting that I was a little annoyed each time we cut back to the shoulder pads and the bad wigs of Chapman’s past with Alex (Laura Prepon)
- It will be interesting to see how Jason Biggs, as Chapman’s fiancé Larry factors into the series. It’s already clear from Chapman’s phone call with Larry that they’ll struggle to bridge the communication gap between the inside and outside world. Through in the ominous pronouncement regarding relationships and prison sentences from another inmate and the future doesn’t look bright (despite the easy-going chemistry between the two). Oh yes, plus our cliffhanger reveals that Alex is also a inmate at Chapman’s prison so that will provide some drama
- Finally, I imagine there will be a great deal to say about class and race as the show moves forward. In this first episode, there’s a repeated refrain “we look out for our own” (ie: white). So far Chapman has yet to interact in any substantial way with women of other ethnicities, though I don’t imagine it will remain this way for long. Show’s like HBO’s OZ (the gold standard in North America for prison dramas) actively mined race and class relations for much of its conflict, so it will be interesting to see Orange’s take. Can’t wait!
- Piper (agreeing to marry Larry when she gets out of prison): “I’ll be so ripped”
- Nikki (after Piper admits to reading about prison decorum in a book): “What…did you study for prison?”
- Constance Shulman’s Jones (commenting on the pudding): “It comes in tins marked Desert Storm”
What did you think of the pilot? Did you find Chapman a fully realized character, in that at times we laugh at her vanity and privilege, and personally identify with her confusion and discomfort at others? Which supporting character stand out for you? Were you surprised by the Alex reveal at the end of the episode? Sound off below
The first season of Orange Is The New Black is now available in its entirety on Netflix. *Please refrain from posting spoilers for upcoming episodes