By Kayla Upadhyaya , Managing Arts Editor
Published July 18, 2013
I had a few concerns about Netflix’s latest original series, “Orange is the New Black.” I worried it would expect us to sympathize exclusively with its main character — the very white and very privileged Piper Chapman — as she navigates the Litchfield women’s federal prison. I worried it would succumb to white saviorism, presenting Piper as the prison angel among a cast of anonymous criminals. I worried it would romanticize prison life in the same way creator Jenji Kohan’s previous work “Weeds” romanticized the drug trade.
"Orange is the New Black"
“Orange” does none of these things.
Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling, “The Lucky One”), with her attractive fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs, “American Pie”) and successful artisanal soap company, basically lives one of those posh New York lifestyles that only seems to exist in Nora Ephron movies and the New York Times style section. But none of that matters anymore as she finds herself facing a 15-month stint in federal prison for a crime she committed 10 years prior with her then-girlfriend Alex (Laura Prepon, “That 70s Show”), a cool, sexy international drug trafficker (pro tip: don’t fall for cool, sexy international drug traffickers, no matter how cool and sexy they are).
Piper arrives at Litchfield, determined to make her time in prison count, maybe learn a craft or two, and then return to her fiancé Larry as a new, enlightened woman. She’s met quickly with the harsh, metallic clamor of prison reality. It’s a place where saying the wrong thing at the wrong time can leave you without food for days, a place where money is replaced with a barter system that includes everything from cans of Pepsi to duct tape to sex. The only new crafts she learns are how to fix broken lamps, how to fashion shower slippers out of Maxi pads and how to live locked up with the ex-girlfriend who landed her in this shit hole in the first place.
“This isn’t ‘Oz,’ ” a correctional officer remarks during Piper’s Litchfield check-in. With its sharp humor and female-centric storytelling, the series isn’t exactly of the same brand as “Oz,” but to call it too watered down to be compared to the harrowing HBO series — or worse, “Oz” for women — is insulting and untrue. “Orange” uses graphic violence sparingly, but when it does, it’s powerful. There’s darkness within the walls of Litchfield. The tone weaves expertly between sweet and poisonous. A jubilant celebration — set to Kelis’s “Milkshake,” obviously — for an inmate who’s finally getting out takes a nasty turn that lands Piper in solitary for an isolating Thanksgiving marked by nonsensical echoes and moldy bologna.
In Piper’s first few weeks behind bars, “Orange” starts to unfurl a series of wonderful surprises. Though we stay close to Piper throughout the 13-episode first season, the story isn’t just hers. She shares it with a whole crew of intricate characters who are far from anonymous. There’s Morello (Yael Stone, “Spirited”), who spends her days planning her wedding with a boyfriend who never visits and screwing the lesbian ex-heroin-junkie Nichols (Natasha Lyonne, “Weeds”). There’s Daya (newcomer Dascha Polanco), who tries so desperately to not end up like her mother (Elizabeth Rodriguez, “Prime Suspect”), a fellow inmate who welcomes her to Litchfield with a motherly slap across the face. The Russian head chef with a bad temper, Red (Kate Mulgrew, “Warehouse 13”), acts as a mother figure to many of the girls, including Tricia (newcomer Madeline Brewer), a lovesick junkie who keeps a handwritten ledger of everything she’s ever stolen so she can one day pay her debts. Piper’s roommate Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst, “Blue Bloods”) is fiercely tidy, and whispered rumors that she killed a man follow her everywhere. When it’s time for a new 'do, the girls know to go to resident stylist Sophia (Laverne Cox, “Transform Me”), a trans woman who befriends a hilariously liberal nun (Beth Fowler, “Gossip Girl”).
Well-placed flashbacks reveal how some of these characters ended up in Litchfield, and it quickly becomes clear that no one woman belongs here more than any other. They’re full of flaws and unconventional talents. They’re vastly distinct from one another, yet their stories overlap in compelling ways, as relationships — maternal, sexual, amiable, hostile — form and transform from episode to episode.
The characters are backed by a superb cast. Schilling gives a career-making performance, and Prepon similarly delivers at an emotional level we haven’t gotten from her in past work. This cast — which bursts with talented newcomers — also strikingly looks like no other ensemble you’ll see on television, starring women of varying ages, sizes, races and sexual orientations. With its diverse representation of women, race and sexuality play huge roles in the show’s narratives. It explores trans issues with a candor rarely found on television and delves into lesbian love as complexly as “The L Word” once did (though it’s worth noting that “Orange” manages, so far, to be more coherent and substantive than “The L Word” ever was).
When Larry becomes concerned that Piper is getting too swept up in prison life (her world suddenly revolves around the sighting of a fabled chicken, because fowl folklore is apparently quite powerful in prison), he points out it’s like living in a fishbowl. As I barreled through the first season of “Orange” (thanks to the release-it-all-at-once delivery method of Netflix original programming), I found myself completely swept up in the super-detailed world Kohan has created. With its specificity and colorful characters, “Orange” is like a fishbowl you can’t help but love being thrown into.