Orange is the New Black

It wasn’t that long ago that Netflix was having some real problems: they alienated many of their customers with a price hike and then toyed with the idea of splitting the company in two – one system for streaming and one for DVD sales –without any clear interface between the two.  With their streaming offerings on the weak side and an increasingly angry customer base, things weren’t looking particularly rosy for the company best known for the little red envelopes. Some were even predicting the demise of Netflix, as other companies like Redbox began to chip away at their market share.

Flash forward two years and Netflix hasn’t disappeared. A company that seemed to be headed off the rails, which their head honcho deemed worst CEO in 2011, has made some necessary course corrections to avoid ruin. One of the smartest things that they have done, in my opinion, was to dip their toe further into the world of original programming. Early attempts, like Lilyhammer, didn’t make much of a splash, but 2013 marks the year that Netflix has come into its own in this field. Obtaining the rights to the new episodes of Arrested Development was a real coup for the company, as was stealing the prestige drama House of Cards out from under the noses of HBO, Showtime and AMC. Both of these shows garnered a lot of media attention and generally favorable reviews; they also highlighted that many consumers like to binge watch programs and will consume an entire season in a short amount of time if all the episodes are made available (I’m guilty of this – I watched all the new Arrested Development episodes in one day and House of Cards over a weekend). It is no longer unrealistic to think of Netflix as a player in the world of original programming and a real competitor for cable viewers.

Though Arrested Development and House of Cards have garnered the most attention – the first had a built in cult following and the latter boasted some big names (Kevin Spacey, David Fincher) – the company recently released a new program that has managed to mostly slip under the radar but that is worth a look. Orange is the New Black is the latest from the creator of Weeds and takes place in a women’s prison; I’m only about halfway through the series, but I find that I’m really enjoying it and am looking forward to finishing the remaining episodes this weekend.

Orange is the New Black is a combination of a drama and a comedy. Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) is sent to prison for a crime she committed almost ten years ago – transporting drug money for her then girlfriend Alex (That 70’s Show’s Laura Prepon). Since the crime, Piper has kept to the straight and narrow – literally; she is now engaged to Larry (Jason Biggs), sell artisanal soaps and has embraced a Whole Foods/organic nouveau hippie sort of lifestyle. In other words, she is ill equipped to make the adjustment to serving time. Once in lockup, Piper must adapt to prison life and the cast of characters that it contains: the temperamental Russian woman Red (Kate Mulgrew) that runs the kitchen (and the prison); a wise mouth and street smart Nicky (Natasha Lyonne); a transgender woman Sophia (Laverne Cox) that may be taken off her hormones due to prison budget cuts; and a crooked CO Mendez (Pablo Schreiber) who abuses his power and takes advantage of many of the inmates. The show will occasionally flash back to what the characters’ lives were like before they were incarcerated; this is sometimes done for humorous effect – Piper been starved out after she offended  Red is transposed with Piper and Larry on a cleanse- but also is used dramatically. One of the reasons that Sophia has become one of my favorite characters is because of her complicated backstory and the revelation of who turned her in for her crime.

While Piper is the main focus, it is the well-rounded supporting cast that is the real strength of Orange is the New Black; while the show definitely has its lighter moments, there are also some very poignant moments for these characters. Their lives haven’t all been easy and they have very really struggles. The show juggles these tonal differences very well; it helps that the show is rarely laugh out loud funny, but is generally amusing. That makes the switch over to the more dramatic stuff seem less like a complete 180. You find yourself laughing at the sheer sleaziness of Mendez, but then feel the violation of the characters when he unnecessarily gropes them during a search. I’m only 6 episodes in and I’m very curious what is going to happen with these characters; they have done an excellent job of making these people that the viewer cares about. It doesn’t hurt that the sociological hierarchy of the prison is also fascinating to watch. I’m going out on a limb to say I don’t think I’ll ever be in prison (though you never know) and while I’m sure this isn’t completely realistic it gives enough of a flavor of what it is like for these people who have lost their freedom.

Some other thoughts:

  • Jenji Kohan has carved quite a niche out for herself with programs about privileged white women and the drug trade. I ultimately quit Weeds – I lost interest once they left Agrestic and Conrad left the show – but Orange is the New Black is tonally very different (and a little less smug).
  • This series is based on a memoir by the same name, written by a woman named Piper who serves as a consultant on the show. I may have to check this out.
  • Even if it takes place in prison, it’s nice to see a show that features an almost exclusively female cast.
  • I don’t know why I found it so hilarious, but Piper’s request that Larry not watch the new season of Mad Men without her really tickled me. That’s a bigger sacrifice than asking someone to stay faithful while you’re away.
  • Fair warning – there is a lot of female nudity and sex in this show. Probably shouldn’t have on when little ones are about. This is definitely an adult show.
  • I thought the line “This isn’t Oz. Women fight with gossip and rumors.” was a nice nod to the other famous show that takes place in a prison as well as the difference between men and women.  It reminded me this Seinfeld exchange, after Elaine learns about wedgies:

                Elaine: Boys are sick

                Jerry: What do girls do?

                Elaine: We just tease someone until they develop an eating disorder.

  • Kate Mulgrew is almost unrecognizable in this part. She really is fantastic.
  • I like how though this show occasionally plays situations for laughs, it treats all the characters with respect. Some shows would go for cheap laughs or stereotypes in this situation, but they avoid that trap.
  • It’s nice to see Jason Biggs in something other than the American Pie movies; I know he has done other things, but that’s how most people know him.
  • Piper and I would have similar goals for incarceration – work out a lot and read all the books on their list.

Unless the series really declines in the final episodes, I’d say that Orange is the New Black is the strongest of the Netflix series to date. I enjoyed Arrested Development and House of Cards, but given that Orange didn’t have the built in advantages of those shows, it has really exceeded my expectations. I’d recommend giving the show a chance; you’ll find yourself slowly getting more and more invested in it. If you didn’t like Weeds, don’t let that be a hindrance. Orange is the New Black is a different animal, despite the seeming overlap in subject matter. Especially during the wasteland that is summer television, Orange is the New Black stands out. It is a fine way to kills some time with characters that are doing time.


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