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'Orange Is The New Black' Review

Becca Grumet |
July 14, 2013 | 3:49 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman (Netflix).
Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman (Netflix).

A few weeks ago, the name “Piper Kerman” probably wasn’t on your radar, but it was on mine. Kerman showed up on “The Moth Radio Hour,” telling the story of how she’d acquired a beloved transistor radio from the prison commissary where she’d stayed for fifteen months. At the end of the show, the host announced that Kerman’s story would soon continue in episodic form on Netflix under the same name as her memoir: “Orange is the New Black.” All thirteen episodes popped up last Thursday. My weekend plans were solidified.

Prison stories are ugly. They’re difficult to watch. More than that, the summer audience seems to engulf themselves in the soapy worlds of “Mistresses” or the stale reality talent competition. Netflix, then, took a bit of a gamble on their third original project after “House of Cards” and “Arrested Development,” relying mainly on the talent and experience of “Weeds” creator Jenji Kohan. And boy did they nail it.

With Kerman as a consulting producer on the project, her story was tweaked as necessary into the character of Piper Chapman, played by Taylor Schilling, who many won’t recognize from the short lived medical drama “Mercy.” As Chapman navigates her way around Litchfield, a federal prison in upstate New York, we meet an endless cast of women and their male guardians. The series is structured in that each episode flashes back to reveal how a particular inmate ended up at Litchfield.

Regina Spektor’s opening theme set to close-up photos of inmates’ facial features asks us to “remember all their faces, remember all their voices.” It’s true, there are a lot to remember, but never has a show offered this many representations of women in this country, from all ethnicities, body sizes, sexualities, you name it. And while Piper soon learns that women’s prison is divided by race, there are moments in the show where the inmates stand together collectively as women going through the same song and dance. It’s fascinating to watch.

The pilot focuses on taking in the prison through the eyes of Piper, a caucasian thirtysomething city dweller engaged to Larry (Jason Biggs, “American Pie”). We quickly learn that Piper spent some time in a post-college lesbian relationship with Alex (Laura Prepon, “That 70s Show”), who named Piper as part of the international drug cartel she worked for. Ten years later, Piper pleads guilty and gets her sentence, landing her in the hands of Counselor Healy (Michael J. Harney) and guards George “Pornstache” Mendez (Pablo Schreiber) and John Bennett (Matt McGorry). While Pornstache spends his time groping inmates and trading drugs for oral sex, sweet army-vet Bennett develops a schoolboy crush on new inmate Daya (Dascha Polanco). Healy warns Piper not to engage in lesbian sex, as most of the women tend to do, and this proves to be a struggle as ex-flame Alex inhabits the same prison walls.

“Orange” offers up the ugliness of prison while maintaining the snarky comedy familiar from “Weeds.” Fans of the latter will recognize Kohan’s expertise in balancing laugh-out-loud wit with intense heart and loneliness. Acted with largely unknown actresses, the performances are impressive and rarely seem overdone, even evoking a feeling of privilege to enter such an exclusive world. Piper develops these feelings right along with us, and Schilling as lead does a fantastic job of carrying the audience with her.

More so, the writing doesn’t shy away from anything explicit, be it slang, sex, violence, or the gross-out surprises in Piper’s food. Perhaps most applause-worthy of all is the prominent focus on Sophia, a male-to-female transgender character played by trans actress Laverne Cox. The third episode, expertly directed by Jodie Foster, focuses on Sophia’s transition and struggle to maintain her family through the process. When the prison budget cuts back on medications, Sophia must deal with a smaller dose of estrogen and the terror of the past manifesting itself physically on her body. It’s a heartbreaking portrayal rarely if at all seen on the television landscape.

As fans of “Cards” and “Arrested” most likely experienced, there are pros and cons to Netflix’s method of releasing all episodes at once, encouraging a binge-watching marathon of all thirteen installments. There’s no anticipation from week to week, but the biggest con seems to be that when it’s over, it’s over. Luckily, Netflix has already renewed for a second season, putting “Orange” on the radar, and more importantly setting a new bar for summer television.

Reach Staff Reporter Becca Grumet here.



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