Recurring Cast: Taylor Schilling, Laura Prepon, Kate Mulgrew, Natasha Lyonne, Danielle Brooks, Taryn Manning, Michael J. Harney, Dascha Polanco, Pablo Schreiber, Matt McGorry, Yael Stone, Michelle Hurst, Laverne Cox, Uzo Aduba, and Jason Biggs
Piper Chapman, from an outsider’s point of view, is the nicest girl you could possibly meet. She is funny, beautiful and an entrepreneur, helping her pregnant friend market her talents into a feasible business plan, while talking engagement and starting a family with her boyfriend, Larry. However, one day, there is a knock on the door and two police officers have shown up to throw her in prison for the next fifteen months. You see, after leaving college, Piper got involved in a lesbian relationship with a dangerous drug-runner. She was persuaded to do a drug run, out of love, and that crime ten years ago has caught up with her, when someone ratted her out. Therefore, normal girl, Chapman gets sent to a woman’s correctional facility, where she has to spend the next fifteen months of her life with unhinged women who want to make her their wife, religious meth-heads and a head chef with connections with the Russian mob. All the while, as she survives day to day life in the slammer, there is a sense the outside world is speeding along without her, as if her fiancé and business partner are slowly forgetting about her.
In itself, there is a lot of great potential with Orange is the New Black. Show-runner Jenji Kohan takes the memoirs from a woman (also called Piper), who spent a year in a woman’s prison, and gives us an accurate portrayal of life behind bars. We instantly cut through the bullshit and exaggerations, seeing the life of a prisoner in as realistic a way as we could get with TV (remembering that we are dealing with a) a TV drama and b) a comedy). This idea is interesting, because as the show brings up often, there are so many misconceptions about what happens in a correctional facility that the prisoners often get their story lost under the accepted clichés and prison jokes. At the very least, you should watch Orange is the New Black to get an idea of what this life is like. The biggest dangers are the prison guards, a despicable (yet oddly likeable) Pornstache swimming around like a shark that gets too into his body searches. Life outside the prison is surprisingly interesting as well, which is good, because this is where most writers would lose the audience. Jason Biggs (see if you can catch the American Pie reference in Episode One – it is a fantastic Easter egg), is phenomenal here, toning down his awkwardness, so his character feels more grounded. Sure, he never quite shakes Jim from the character, but in a way, it helps, because we can imagine this being the person Jim from American Pie grows into. When his character starts questioning his relationship, Biggs give us a performance we have never seen from him before. It is great to watch.
Piper Chapman is also a fantastic character to spend time with. At the start of the show, we assume that she is just a normal girl who all of these bad things happened to. She fell in love with a criminal and got swept away with a life of crime. The flashbacks show her being manipulated into taking a suitcase full of contraband through customs. Her failure at coping with her long distance relationship with Larry comes from the psychological consequences of prison life: the prisoners are so focused with dealing with the ‘now’ that outside prison fades away into irrelevance. However, as the supporting cast are built up, we learn there is nothing as simple as a bad guy in ‘Orange is the New Black’. Chapman’s ex-lover (a refreshingly complex role for Laura Prepon), was just as caught up in love as Chapman was. Some of the things that happened to Chapman were due to her lack of responsibility and blame-shifting. The crime she committed is always blamed on outside elements, rather than the fact that she committed the smuggling. It is difficult to pick a side with her arguments with Larry; he is wrong with ignorance and Chapman is the queen of half-truths and question dodging. It could have been very difficult to like Piper, but this is where Taylor Schilling comes into play. The actress is phenomenal. She is always shown as vulnerable (the occasional nude shots of the actress are used sparingly and meaningfully – something Game of Thrones could take a note of), and Schilling remains a strong female character, despite crying often. Who wouldn’t in her shoes? Yes, sometimes you will want to give Chapman a shake and a wake-up call, but we are always behind the character. A great debut performance from Schilling.
But Orange is the New Black doesn’t stop with Chapman’s life in prison. The first few episodes introduce the supporting cast. By the end of the first episode, you feel disappointed that the writers have fallen on clichés on the secondary characters (angry black girl, the girl with the crazy eyes, the junkie lesbians), but as the season progresses, each character is built on. Every episode has a flashback where we see their life before the prison, making their stereotypes more real and grounded. That angry black girl was a track runner onto a successful sports career, which she threw away. A pill addict has a list of everything she stole, so she could pay it back, once she began earning some money. Hardly anyone gets left behind. The show turns into a remarkably great juggling act. Sure, Chapman is always the star, but the story isn’t afraid to break away for forty seconds just to check in with the transvestite character from Episode Three, clearing up what has happened to her character recently. This makes the show exciting, as we have no idea where the next important character is going to spring from. A religious meth-head character, Pennsatucky, is introduced for a couple of jokes about extreme religion in a contained atmosphere. However, the character keeps cropping back up, getting unexpected depth and she becomes one of the main catalysts of the finale, not to mention one of the best characters. Orange is the New Black never forgets its secret weapon: characters.
They never work too hard for the jokes too, which is nice. I took so long getting around to this show, because I have always shied away from hour long comedies. It has always seemed like too long to spend on a bunch of jokes strung together by a vague story. However, Orange is the New Black grows into a drama with some great character pieces, glued together by its jokes. The joke-telling feels so natural. We get these fun people to spend time with and the show sticks two of them together and just lets them bounce off each other. Natasha Lyonne and Yael Stone always have amusing scenes together. Jason Biggs never falls back on his comedy roots too hard. I hope I am not underselling this show by saying that the laughs are laid back and casual, because it really is a good thing. A great thing, in my books. Besides, too heavy on the humour would destroy the prison perspective that this show is trying hard to depict naturally.
Final Verdict: Orange is the New Black could have been good, but the writers weren’t prepared to stop there. The show turned out great. Fantastic. Unmissable.