Watch out, cable TV. Netflix is in the house.
After spending the last week absorbed in, by and around “Orange is the New Black,” I can tell you this show has earned every word of praise that’s come its way (and how). Netflix’s latest series reinvents the “women in prison” genre, but it’s miles removed from old classics like “Caged” and even newer versions like the excellent British show”Bad Girls.” Like the best premium cable has to offer, “Orange is the New Black” juxtaposes its dark humor with some slap-in-the-face drama. One minute you’re laughing hysterically, only to be cut short when you’re forced to witness yet another indignity, yet another deprivation of humanity. It’s quite a brew.
At the outset we meet Piper Chapman, seemingly your typical soon-to-be newlywed, but in reality, one with a Past, capital “P.” You see, ten years before, when our Pipes was young, dumb and in love, she was a drug courier for her then-girlfriend, the charismatic Alex Vause. But it seems the law, having caught up with Alex and her associates, wants Piper behind bars for her role in the heroin trafficking enterprise. So dear, sweet Piper, now engaged to a clueless Larry Bloom, is on her way to a federal pen for 15 months. And who does she encounter? Alex, who may or may not have ratted her out to the feds. We’re not quite sure how to take all this—comedy or tragedy?— and indeed, the tone of the first episode is uncertain. But the series almost immediately shifts into gear with the second episode, and from then on, it just gets better and better. Yes, there’s one clinker of an episode (the one with the chicken), but fortunately with a cast this large and about eight different plots percolating simultaneously, you barely feel the bump in the road.
My favorite aspect of the series is its manner of storytelling. We only learn about Piper and her fellow inmates incrementally—what crimes they committed, what their backgrounds were, how they related to their significant others and parents—through brief flashbacks. Not all is revealed in any one episode, and in fact, some of these plots were barely under way by the end of the season (I’m intrigued by what put Red, who seemingly joined a cadre of Russian Mafia types, behind bars). But perhaps the most riveting back story is revealed the old-fashioned way, in a monologue delivered by Yoga Jones (Constance Shulman), who describes to a fellow inmate exactly how she ended up killing an eight year-old boy. And wonder of wonders, there’s follow-through. When Piper tells a young participant in a “Scared Straight” program that the most frightening person she’d meet in prison is herself, the season’s conclusion proves her words—and then some.
It goes without saying that the acting is extraordinary. The supporting cast is just this side of phenomenal, though Natasha Lyonne as ex-junkie and rehab veteran Nicky Nichols may be in a class by herself. She has the crumpled voice and sarcastic demeanor of the great broads of classic Hollywood films—Iris Adrian, of “Roxie Hart” fame (“Got a butt, buddy?”) must be her spiritual grandmother. As Piper, Taylor Schilling is that rare bird: a very pretty girl with superb comic timing. She’s easily matched by Laura Prepon as Alex in both the light and dark aspects of the story, and their chemistry is undeniable (aka, “Yeah, they’re really hot together”).
“Orange is the New Black” could easily fall into cliché, but it hasn’t done so yet. The show runners have been very smart in resisting the obvious in their various story lines: Daya’s pregnancy, Pennsatucky’s holy roller band of renown, Taystee’s willing return to jail, Miss Claudette’s failed appeal (I hope she gets out of max soon, because Michelle Hurst is terrific in the part). My only complaint is that the men, with the sole exception of Piper’s brother Scott, are fairly one-dimensional. Prison Officer Mendez, known as Pornstache, is a drug-dealing bastard, Officer Bennett is naive, Prison Administrator Caputo is just wrong about everything, Officer Healy is a homophobe and Larry, Piper’s fiancé, is a nebbish. As to Healy, though, I did feel a distant pang over his being set up by his mail-order Russian bride who’s only in it for the citizenship. The scene in his office, with Red (the formidable Kate Mulgrew) acting as both translator and marriage counselor, is a riot (“He’s got a government job, dummy”), Only Scott, whom I adore, sounds a different note. Living in a trailer in the woods, miles away from Manhattan madness and family drama, he’s a breath of fresh air—his scenes are all too few.
The beauty of watching this on Netflix is that the option is yours—you can binge watch or take your time, but in either case, go back to savor some brilliance. Have fun—it’s the best show around.