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Perhaps it’s a hazard of the professionally jaded, but reading about the premise of new series sparks all kinds of red flags: It’s been done before. It’s been done too much. It sounds stupid. It’s from a creator with a spotty track record. It’s inherently dubious. Even if it works at the beginning, the long-term viability isn’t there.
Shall I continue?
And so it was with a welcome sigh of relief and a telling amount of optimism that the first four episodes of Netflix’s new drama series Orange Is the New Black, premiering July 11, not only surprised but at various points astounded. Series creator Jenji Kohan (Weeds), has crafted a dramedy based on the popular memoir of the same name from Piper Kerman and infused it with an unpredictable flow of laughs, seriousness, an impressive and measured reveal of character backstories, and enormous potential.
Could it all still go off the rails? Sure. Anytime there’s clashing tonality – a staple of Weeds – the balance can go wrong with alarming swiftness and mess up a good thing. But I eagerly devoured the first four episodes and will no doubt watch the other two Netflix made available to critics before polishing the season off when it drops in its entirety on July 11.
The series focuses on Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling, who gives a brilliant performance), a happy 32-year-old city girl living in Brooklyn, who recently started a line of bath soaps and products with her best friend. Piper’s engaged to the charmingly low-key Larry (Jason Biggs), who can’t believe his luck at finding an upbeat, funny, loveable person like Piper. All is great.
Except for this thing she needs to do first – self-surrender at an upstate women’s prison. That was news to Larry. As was the fact that Piper used to be a lesbian. And the arrest is for being a mule for some drug money she got through customs in Europe. As this scene, told in flashback, plays out, Larry can’t believe what he’s hearing. “I feel like I’m in a Bourne movie. Have you killed?”
It’s a funny scene, and there are plenty of them in the first hour as the couple comes to terms with the fact Piper has to spend 15 months in prison as part of her plea deal. As Piper explains, she was just 22 years old, in love with a lesbian named Alex (Laura Prepon, who is also strong here) and swept up in the thrill of traveling around Europe. She didn’t really catch on that Alex was part of an international drug smuggling ring. “Then it got scary and I ran away and became the nice blonde lady I was supposed to be,” she tells Larry.
Schilling is so believable as Piper that she makes Orange Is the New Black work from the second we meet her. She’s sweet, she’s adorable, she’s funny – you buy in immediately that she made a mistake a decade ago and got out and started living her life with positivity and renewed focus. Unbeknownst to her, the drug ring would get busted, she’d get named as an accomplice (statute of limitations: 12 years) and would plead out and pay her penance instead of trying to fight the charge in court and risk a more lengthy sentence.
It’s essential to root for Piper from the start and Kohan makes us do that with ease. Paired with Biggs, who brings his laid-back, nice-guy personality to the story, viewers are immediately set up with the disparity between what their lives are now and what they’ll be when Piper self-surrenders.
That’s partly why the first hour, in particular, is funny. The couple has made the decision to pay dues and move on. How long can 15 months really be – especially if there’s good behavior involved?
“Please keep my website updated!” Piper tells Larry, right after musing aloud and somewhat forlornly that by the time she gets out, two or three new versions of the iPhone will have come and gone.
There’s a lot of humor to mine as Piper prepares to self-surrender. She tells Larry as they’re hanging out at the beach: “I’m going to get ripped – like Jackie Warner ripped. And I’m going to read everything on my Amazon wish list.”
Of course, things change when Piper starts doing time. And this is where Orange Is the New Black starts really nailing the delicate balancing act of a woman derided by other inmates as “Taylor Swift” suffering the indignities of prison. This was always going to be the dangerous confluence that Kohan faced. Balancing both light and searing comedy with a serious, insightful attempt at drama is a tough road. It may eventually be the undoing of Orange, but for now, Kohan’s manipulation of tone is incredibly impressive. Because along with her writing staff she’s able to give you Piper’s relatively normal outside life and what changes when she’s on the inside.
Some of those changes are more grand opportunities at humor, of course. She’s a bit mopey on the phone with Larry – the money she’s allowed to spend inside hasn’t arrived, so she’s struggling. “You’re not supposed to eat the pudding because it’s been to Desert Storm,” she tells him, exhaling. When her mother arrives for a visit, she asks Piper what she did to her hair, which has had big strands cut out. “I had to give it to a transsexual. For a weave.” There’s a backstory to that, of course, that makes it both funny and actually a bit sad.
What elevates Orange Is the New Black to impressive levels is how it shifts gears to the serious. Piper tells a fellow inmate that in these early days in prison, she still can’t shake the feeling that she’ll be able to go home when the day ends. (“Your head’s not here,” her prison counselor tells her, noting it takes a while to arrive.) Piper tells the fellow inmate that sometimes when she opens her eyes for the first time in the morning, the reality of where she is hasn’t set in yet. There’s a look on her face about how nice that feels. Then she adds, “But when I do realize, I can’t breathe. Then I want to cry and throw shit and kill myself.”
During her prison orientation, Kohan inserts a necessary and true line from a counselor: “This isn’t Oz,” referencing the HBO series about men in prison (necessary as acknowledgment that the format has been explored before and true in that the shows are after different ends). Then the counselor adds: “I want you to know that you do not have to have lesbian sex.” It’s both funny as a statement, plus as a reference to Piper’s past that the counselor doesn’t know about, but also something that’s a concern on some level to her. And will “Taylor Swift” be attractive bait in prison? You bet.
Another element of what makes Orange successful in its execution is that after dropping Piper into the prison, meeting all kinds of strangers and trying to suss out friend from foe, Kohan slowly shifts away from Piper’s perspective and starts to tell the backstories of the women who are in there. That part is a particularly neat trick because it adds much more nuance than just having Piper face various “types” in her 15-month term.
Early on, Orange is trying to figure out how to keep Biggs involved as Larry, but is doing a good job. There’s a funny scene where he’s talking to Piper by phone and she says, “Promise me you’re not watching Mad Men without me.” Again, it stands alone as a joke but then morphs into another sentiment entirely because Piper is dreaming about her release and catching up with Larry; she wants to spend nights curled up together, eating her favorite foods and watching a show they both love. She wants to believe their connection can last 15 months and be repaired.
There are moments of absurdity here as well, of course. Some of the humor works, some doesn’t. Kohan cast Pablo Schreiber (The Wire) as a prison guard the inmates called Pornstache, and he is, without a doubt, a walking cliche played for laughs. And yet he works right alongside a guard that just returned from Afghanistan and, in his newbie status, has a much more tender approach to what’s going on at the jail. (Besides, ensemble casts invariably have characters that don’t always work. I really like Showtime’s Ray Donovan but have trouble not only with Elliott Gould’s character and performance, but with a few other broader types – but for me, their shortcomings don’t ruin the series or detract from it.)
Again, tones clashing randomly is a hallmark of Orange Is the New Black. Some of the inmate characters are broadly drawn, others less so, and some evolve as Kohan slowly tells you their tale. Kate Mulgrew in particular is interesting as Galina “Red” Reznikov, the Russian-prison powerhouse who runs the kitchen. How she got there is so far quite intriguing, with surprising nuance.
In fact, surprising may be the key description for Orange Is the New Black. It constantly offers more than you expect, and even when it delivers something either predictable or straight from the “women’s prison drama” handbook, it then counters with something fresh or unexpected.
Netflix has already renewed Orange for a second season, but we’ll know more about the show’s ability to keep up this difficult balance as the episodes from this freshman season play out. In any case, it has staying power, so by all means self-surrender to it.
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