It’s hard to know how to review Orange is the New Black, the new series from Netflix that anyone who pays attention to media writers has heard about; it’s buzzier than a beehive. It’s excellent television, but it’s also a new kind of TV. Netflix dropped the whole series at once into its streaming offerings, so an episode-by-episode recap is artificial. Does that mean I should watch the whole series before reviewing it? Well, I’ve seen six of Season 1’s thirteen episode (Season 2 is already slated), so this seems like a good time.
If you haven’t heard, Orange is the New Black is based on the true story of a privileged blonde yuppie (Piper Chapman on the show, Piper Kerman in real life) who got involved in a college love affair with a drug runner, and ultimately smuggled drug money for her. Ten years later, she is caught and sent to prison. The show follows Piper (Taylor Schilling) as she adjusts to prison life, while also giving back story for our star and cast of other inmates. Especially notable are Laura Prepon as Piper’s former lover, Lea DeLaria as “Big Boo,” Michelle Hurst as “Miss Claudette,” and Kate Mulgrew as “Red.”
The show is compelling. It’s trashy fun, smartly written, and often surprising. The characters are incredibly well-drawn; each is a distinct individual. It’s not just that each has a back story; they are all also recognizable and specific. There aren’t generic guards, racial stereotypes, or easy and inauthentic writing cop-outs. The show addresses racial and social tensions with remarkable frankness–a scene of two African-American prisoners imitating white women is hilarious–but does so without using TV shorthand. I mean, there are all the things you expect from a women-in-prison show: lesbian affairs, nasty guards, fights, hazing, racial divides, but I still feel like it’s about people. There’s something special and respectful about casting a well-known out butch (Lea DeLaria) as a butch, and casting Laverne Cox, a transwoman, as the transgendered prisoner Sophia.
By the way, Netflix is willing to go all the way to NC-17 with this show. By the pilot you know it’s happy with frank language and topless women, but in Episode 6 I was honestly surprised about how explicit things got.
There is a quality to the writing that feels very “TV show.” Sometimes it’s almost like Meredith Grey is narrating, although that improves after the first three episodes. There’s a beat-beat-kaCHING quality to the way some plots are resolved and the way some punch lines are set up. There’s a lack of background characters that makes Litchfield Women’s Prison feel a little bit like Sunnydale in its ability to expand and contract as needed. For example, a prisoner asks Piper which counselor she got, but the fact is, six episodes in, we only ever see one counselor, and every prisoner we see talking to a counselor is talking to him. There’s a scene in Episode 6 in which someone remarks that “every prisoner” is in the cafeteria, so we see exactly what that population looks like, and it doesn’t seem like quite enough, especially given the number of unseen prisoners mentioned. Eh, that’s a budget thing, but it could be tightened up.
Still, I am all in with this one, definitely watching the rest of this season, and next, and probably writing more about it for you all.