TV Review: Orange is the New Black?
Many have had their doubts and questions prior to viewing Netflix original series Orange Is the New Black. Is it a comedy? A drama? Do I really want to devote 13 hours of my life to a fluffy, cookie dough version of HBO’s Oz? I need a body count with my prison shows, even if it is a dramedy. However, only a couple episodes in I realized that this vehicle from “Weeds” creator Jenji Kohan possesses a lot of the unique appeal that had audiences enamored with the hijinks of Nancy Botwin (at least in the early seasons), a neurotic lead seeming to be in way over her head, and an absurd yet completely plausible world which she learns to traverse through trial and error.
“Orange”, based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, introduces us to protagonist Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a 32 year old well-to-do, newly engaged blond who is about to embark on a 15-month prison sentence for once smuggling drug money for her ex -lesbian lover (Laura Prepon). We all can relate to the feeling of our past finally catching up to us. However, our sympathy for Piper stems from the racially distorted dynamics of the penal system in America. This pretty little goldfish is not only out of water, but she’s somehow ended up in the jungle. I found myself pitying her which then turned cold. It felt like the famous interrogation scene in Menace To Society with Bill Duke, “You now you done f@cked up right?” For a girl afforded all of life’s protections; federal prison is one of the last places you would expect her to end up.
Much of the comedy in the early episodes originates from the fact that Piper is clearly not about that life. Her endearing attempts to cling to the Whole Foods and Mad Men existence she knew before prison takes quite the toll on her fiancé Larry played by Jason Biggs. (Insert masturbation joke here). There’s also the fact her lesbian lover is a cellblock away trying to rekindle that flame Piper left behind in her roaring twenties.
Humanity Behind Bars
Initially “Orange” appears to be Piper’s memoirs of the craziness that is life in a female prison, but Jenji Kohan does an exceptional job bringing humanity to the other players Piper shares her world with. Flashbacks in each episode illustrate the trials this oft forgotten population of women faced, and how they managed to end up in federal lockup.
One of the more interesting characters we encounter is Sophia Burset, played by trans actress Laverne Cox, who gave up her freedom to pay for a sex change, leaving a supportive wife and a frustrated child to pick up the pieces. Other standout players are Red (Katie Mulgrew), the mother figure of the white girl tribe who runs the kitchen with an iron fist. Natasha Lyonne is wonderful as a jaded drug addict who can see through most of Piper’s facades because she comes from a similar world. Dascha Polanco impresses as the tough but sweet Dayanara Diaz who shares a dorm with her mother.
The Danger is Real and Often Hilarious
If most of the characters in this world embody a duality to which we can all relate, Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) and Pornstache (Pablo Schrieber) exist on the darker side of that spectrum. Manning, a Jesus loving meth head does a dazzling job of shedding that trashy sex appeal we’ve come to know and love. Shreiber as George “Pornstache” Mendez is a guilty pleasure, the inmate banging, drug slanging correctional officer is as hilarious as he is scary, primarily because I’m sure there are men like him working in female prisons across the country.
My favorite character by far is Crazy Eyes, played brilliantly by Uzo Aduba. We initially see her as the prison psychopath but end up realizing that she is a sweet girl with and issue or twenty. The scenes where she tries to make Piper into her prison wifey are some of the most memorable of the season. When you find yourself referring to Piper as dandelion or singing “chocolate and vanilla swirl”, I won’t say I told you so.
What Lies Ahead
“Orange” is a true ensemble. Watching actors (particularly those of color) that most audiences have never seen before stretch their legs, albeit in a prison setting is a true pleasure. They make the ride, that is the first season, all the more interesting.
Piper goes from feeling like a woman apart to understanding that she is no different or better than the other inmates. She’s just one of the girls now. Will she be able to hold on to her former self? Or will she truly break bad like Walter White and become a straight G. The final showdown with Pennsatucky in the yard has me leaning toward the latter. Only time will tell. Season two? I channel linebacker Bart Scott in saying “Can’t Wait!!”