July 11, 2013

THE SKED NETFLIX REVIEW: “Orange Is the New Black” (Episodes 1-3)


With the arrival of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK after House of Cards, Hemlock Grove and Arrested Development, Netflix has completed the first quartet of its initial plunge into high-profile original programming .  Based on the available evidence (Netflix doesn’t release viewership information), the process has gone extremely well, with both subscriptions and the stock price up, and the service quickly established as a major player in the new multi-platform world of content.  Orange is the first of the series (other than Arrested Development, which exists more or less in Mitchell Hurwitz’s own auteurist universe) to be in the hands of an experienced TV showrunner–Jenji Kohan, who created and ran Weeds for its 8-season run on Showtime–and perhaps as a result, there’s a seeming ease to its execution that provides the sense that Netflix has already become a mature home for offbeat stories and talent.

There are superficial similarities between Kohan’s old show and Orange, since both involve seemingly settled upper-middle-class women suddenly forced to deal with the world of criminality and its consequences.  In this case, it’s Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a Connecticut native in her 30s who’s happily engaged to writer Larry (Jason Biggs) and getting an artisanal soap and lotion business off the ground with her best friend (their products are at Barneys!) when she’s not cheating on her cleanse or bickering with her WASPy mother.  Unfortunately, Piper wasn’t always so bourgeois–she once had a serious lesbian relationship with Alex (Laura Prepon), who worked for an international drug ring.  That offered the perk of some glamorous worldwide travel, but along the way, Piper carried illicit money over international borders, and 5 years later, through circumstances that are still mysterious in the first 3 episodes, Piper was named as a co-conspirator, and she pleaded out to a sentence of 15 months at Litchfield Federal Prison in upstate New York.  (The series is based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of her own time in prison.)  Oh, and surprise–Alex has been sentenced to Litchfield, too.

Although there are flashes of the inmates’ previous lives (the first episode, naturally enough, was about Piper, while the idea seems to be for subsequent episodes to each feature one fellow inmate), the bulk of the action takes place within Litchfield.  The show very specifically informs Piper and us in the first episode that this isn’t Oz (the only shank we’ve seen so far was part of a guard’s misguided demo), but it’s still much rougher territory than the suburbia of Weeds.  There’s no upward mobility here, just Piper’s struggle to keep going day by day, fighting loneliness, humiliation and the challenges of prison life.  In episode 2, she antagonizes the Russian emigre inmate who’s also prison chef (Kate Mulgrew, marvelous) by criticizing the commissary food, and has to puzzle out a sufficient way to apologize to a woman who, as we learn through the flashbacks, can’t bear being laughed at.  In order to make the solution work, she gets the help of Suzanne, better known as Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba), who by episode 3 has fallen head-over-heels for Piper and wants her for a prison wife.  However, it’s won’t always be the case that the flashbacks for an episode will concern the person most involved with Piper in that hour, since instead of Crazy Eyes, episode 3 tells the story of transsexual Sophia (Laverne Cox).

Kohan has always had a gift for blending comic, suspenseful and character-based tones, and Orange is so far a smooth, engrossing piece of work.  Even though the material has obviously been stretched for the sake of comedy and melodrama, it still feels basically authentic, with many well-chosen details that reveal what life behind these bars is like.  (Kohan wrote episode 1 with Liz Friedman, episode 2 is by Marco Ramirez and episode 3 by Sian Heder; episode 1 was directed by Michael Trim, 2 by Uta Briesewitz, and the third hour by no less a personage than Jodie Foster.)  Several Weeds veterans show up in supporting roles, like Michael Harney (a cop in the show’s latter seasons) as a senior guard and Pablo Schreiber (a pot dealer who became involved with Mary-Louis Parker’s Nancy) a less trustworthy one.  The extremely diverse cast also includes Natasha Lyonne, Yael Stone and Michelle Hurst as fellow inmates.  Much of the show, of course, rests on Schilling, who beautifully balances naivete, charm, some insensitivity and an undertone of darkness that seems likely to grow in later episodes.

Hemlock Grove aside (and that show, to be fair, delivers what it intends, schlocky as that may be), Netflix has shown a strong ability to find absorbing material and talented creators, then let them do their jobs.  Orange Is the New Black tells its stories convincingly, able to be funny, a little scary and sometimes moving.  When the best network television can do these days is Under the DomeOrange is another reminder that new technologies are finding room for far more interesting dramas.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."