The female prison dramedy “Orange Is the New Black” is the fourth Netflix original series to debut this year (all 13 episodes of the first season should be available to stream after 12 a.m. Pacific tonight), and battling it out with the horror series “Hemlock Grove” for the lowest profile. “House of Cards” was the splashy, expensive acquisition, bought out from under the noses of HBO and company, starring Kevin Spacey, directed by David Fincher, and arriving with all the polish and fanfare of a premiere cable drama. The new season of “Arrested Development” was the resurrection of a beloved comedy series that was canceled much too soon in the mid-’00s. And yet each was something of a disappointment: “House of Cards” felt formulaic and emotionally empty, while “Arrested Development” struggled to recreate the old magic with the characters mostly separated.
“Orange Is the New Black” has a creative pedigree (creator Jenji Kohan was responsible for Showtime’s “Weeds”), but also has a relatively unknown leading lady in Taylor Schilling. Netflix has been promoting it heavily of late, and even ordered a second season before the first had debuted, but I had no idea what to expect when I began watching the first of six episodes made available for critics to review. At first the show felt merely like a pleasant surprise – Kohan and company surpassing the most minimal of expectations – but as I began buzzing through one hour after another after another(*) in that addictive Netflix way where episodes are stacked appealingly in front of you like Pringles, I was feeling genuine enjoyment. “Orange Is the New Black” is perhaps the least-heralded Netflix original so far. It’s also the most satisfying.
(*) For a company specializing in streaming video, Netflix has a remarkably terrible streaming player for press, one that frequently tends to crash when you so much as pause the action for a moment. I say this not to complain about the not-so-terrible burdens of being a TV critic, but to illustrate just how much I was enjoying the show. The Netflix player for press is so aggravating to use that I’d have stopped after maybe two episodes if I’d found “Orange” to be even average. Instead, I watched all six, frequently cursing the people who wrote the original code for Java.
Once again, Kohan finds herself telling the story of a pampered white woman whose life is turned upside down by an involvement in marijuana distribution. This time, our heroine is Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a secure Brooklyn hipster who dreams of her artisanal soap line being available for sale at Barney’s, but who as a younger woman dated a drug trafficker named Alex (Laura Prepon) and occasionally did money runs for her. Alex gets busted, Piper is named as a conspirator – not long, she notes ruefully, before the statute of limitations would have run out – and takes a plea to serve 15 months at a women’s federal penitentiary.
The series is based on a memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman, who served as a consultant on the series, and the fictionalized Piper serves as our initial, relatable entry point into prison life. On her first day inside, one of the prison counselors evokes the name of a classic TV series set in another prison, telling her, “This isn’t ‘Oz.’ Women fight with gossip and rumors.” “Oz” creator Tom Fontana would describe incarcerated lawyer Tobias Beecher as “the HBO subscriber,” and there are ways in which Kohan uses Piper in similar fashion. But she’s also aware that her heroine has led a fairly pampered, ridiculous existence – in one episode, a present-day storyline about the vengeful head of the kitchen staff (an unrecognizable, Russian-accented Kate Mulgrew) trying to starve Piper is contrasted with flashbacks of Piper and her fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs) struggling through a five-day juice cleanse, and she makes Larry promise not to watch new “Mad Men” episodes until she’s released – and quickly begins filling in the blanks on the women around her. Through Piper, we get to learn how the prison ecosystem works – the voluntary segregation by race, the legal and extra-legal aspects of the prison economy – but we also find out, through flashbacks and present-day dialogue, how the other inmates put themselves here and how incarceration has and hasn’t changed them from the person they were before they were given a jumpsuit and an ID number.
It’s with those stories – how a shy undocumented teenager from Jamaica grew into one of the prison’s most feared elders (Michelle Hurst), the difficult gender transition a fireman made to wind up as the resident hairstylist (Laverne Cox), the way certain lesbian inmates (like Natasha Lyonne’s recovering addict) feel when their current lovers prepare to return to men on the outside – that “Orange” becomes particularly engrossing. Schilling makes a good set of eyes and ears, and also deftly handles the show’s abrupt transitions from dark drama to ridiculous comedy, but it’s the series’ clear-eyed take on women’s prison culture as a whole that stands out the most.
I should say that I was never particularly fond of “Weeds” when I watched it, finding a lot of the comedy to be overly pleased with itself. Most of the comedic parts of “Orange” didn’t especially work for me, either. But it’s a measure of how well Kohan and company nail the character and sociological stuff that I ultimately didn’t care how few of the jokes were landing. (And on the occasions when a gag does work, like a pair of black inmates doing a prolonged imitation of rich, spoiled white women, it works brilliantly.) And what’s remarkable is that no matter how big and broad some of the humor and performances get, it never winds up undercutting the characters or the stakes. Pablo Schreiber hams it up as an obnoxious guard who sports a porn star mustache and will smuggle in contraband in exchange for sexual favors, but when a moment requires the audience to take his character seriously – say, when he moves Piper to the brink of tears while smugly taking liberties during a pat-down – it works.
“Orange Is the New Black” is not, as the counselor notes to Piper, the next “Oz.” There’s the occasional threat of violence, but the series is much more interested in how a group of women from a variety of racial and socio-economic backgrounds try or fail to connect when placed in the same enclosed space for months or years on end. But it evokes “Oz” in a very, very good way: it doesn’t feel quite like anything that’s been put on television (if we’re still calling Netflix “television”) before.
I had no plans for this series beyond the couple of episodes I expected to watch before writing this review. Now, I can’t wait to find time to watch the rest of this first season.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com