July 21, 2013

THE SKED NETFLIX REVIEW: “Orange Is the New Black” (full season)


ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK may be the most tolerant show on television (or “television,” or whatever it is we’re calling distributed entertainment content in this new Netflixed world).  All the characters, even those who commit the most heinous acts–inmates and guards both–have their reasons and their frailties.  They’re miserably in love, or living in terror of one kind or another, and it makes them do awful things, but the series insists that as much as we may despise them, we also appreciate their demons.  Even the final sequence of the show’s first season, which may be its darkest, revolves around three characters acting on impulses they only half-understand and can’t possibly control.  (Considering where the series went in its Season 1 finale, it’s a mercy that Netflix has already ordered a Season 2, since to leave things where they were would have punished viewers almost as much as the characters.)

By midway through the season, it was clear that although Orange had a starting point similar to the one of Jenji Kohan’s Weeds (middle-class, hyper-articulate, manipulative white woman forced to enter a world of multi-ethnic criminals), her canvas was far broader this time, and her tone very different.  Although there’s plenty of humor in Orange (which Kohan created with Liz Friedman, based on Piper Kerman’s memoir), it’s not a jokey or satiric show, and it’s not about upward mobility.  It’s about characters forced by their circumstances to burrow deep into themselves and find out who they really are, especially Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) herself.  Late in the season, asked to give a “scared straight” speech to a teenage delinquent, Piper delivers the show’s manifesto:  “The truth is gonna catch up with you here.  And it’s the truth that’s gonna make you her bitch.”

So Mendez (Pablo Schreiber), the guard who sells drugs to the inmates and drove one to suicide, is pitifully taken with Daya (Dascha Polanco), who’s pregnant by another guard and who tried to frame Mendez for rape so she could hold onto her baby and her boyfriend could keep his job.  Red (Kate Mulgrew) rules her kitchen with a tyrannical hand, partly in reaction to a life outside where she was disdained and ignored.  Healy (the remarkable Michael J. Harney) is obsessively anti-lesbian even as he’s locked in a loveless green card marriage that he desperately wishes were more.  Doggett (Taryn Manning), the meth-head who becomes Piper’s deadly antagonist, shot up an abortion clinic for entirely non-political reasons, but taken on as a cause by fundamentalist Christians, she’s become a fanatical one herself.  (Manning’s promotion to series regular in Season 2 at least resolves one piece of the finale cliffhanger, since Doggett must still be alive.)  Everyone on Orange is granted their humanity, however unsavory it may be.

Most complicated of all is Piper, and her relationship with sometime-lover, sometime-betrayer Alex (Laura Prepon).  Like Nancy Botwin on Weeds, Piper can be horribly insensitive and narcissistic, swaddled in her cocoon of entitlement, and she uses her sexuality, although not as calculatingly (or as effectively) as Nancy.  She’s trying to fit herself into the good-husband, nice-job slot where she feels that she belongs.  But there’s a heart of darkness in Piper that goes beyond a post-college lesbian affair with a drug-trafficker, and she’s both thrilled and horrified by it.  Schilling and Prepon do a superb job of navigating the ebb and flow of power in their tricky romance, tender and also potentially obliterating. and Schilling in particular has to delicately expose Piper’s shortcomings while not overplaying her naivete and still remaining the audience’s window into this world.

Orange lurches into melodrama at times (the sad story of Michelle Hurst’s Miss Claudette, who after 8 years of stolidly serving her time finally has hope of release, only to be brutally crushed by inevitable disappointment) and doesn’t always avoid cliche (Daniella Brooks’s Taystee, who can’t handle life on the outside and breaks her parole so she’ll be put back behind bars)  or silliness.  It’s probably at its weakest when it deals with the only major character who isn’t at Litchfield Prison, Piper’s writer fiancee Larry.  Jason Biggs is very good at conveying the self-righteous spitefulness that lurks not far behind Larry’s nice-Jewish-guy facade, but Larry is ultimately too clueless and out of the loop to be a fully involving figure.  (The season ended with him splitting up with Piper, and it wouldn’t be a bad thing if that stayed the case.)

Remarkably, though, Orange is true to its tone most of the time, dramatic but not sensationalistic.  Kohan uses flashbacks to great effect, not in the Lost way of providing entire B-stories for the episodes, but briefly alluding to the characters’ pasts, providing shades of their personalities that they can’t show at Litchfield and suggesting how they became the people they are.  (A particularly enlightening one was about the preternaturally self-confident Alex, who was revealed as insecure and laughed at as a child.)  The show is notable, among other things, for the sheer number of unfamiliar, diverse actress it showcases:  apart from those named (and the revivified Natasha Lyonne as sharp-witted addict Nicky), some of them are the amazing Uzo Aduba as Crazy Eyes, whose great dignity duels with her recurrent madness; Lea DeLaria as the boisterous Big Boo; Laverne Cox as the transsexual hairdresser (and former fireman) Burset; and Yael Stone as Morello, boundlessly cheerful unless someone suggests that her engagement on the outside may be a delusion.  The series has also been extremely well directed, by a group that includes Michael Trim and actors Jodie Foster and Andrew McCarthy, making good use of naturally limited settings.  In particular, the show’s use of licensed songs has been exceptional.

Orange Is the New Black is the most traditionally engrossing of Netflix’s offerings so far, a strong narrative revolving around interesting, distinctive characters, without pretentions or auteurist wizardry.  It’s impossible to tell just how it’s doing with viewers, since Netflix famously refuses to disclose such information, although circumstantial evidence suggests that at least in the short term, it may be less popular than some of its brethren (Orange has about 300,000 ratings from members thus far, compared to 1.2 million for House of Cards and almost 600,000 for Hemlock Grove).  At this point, though, like many cable networks over the past decade, Netflix is more about building a brand than anything else, and the strong quality of Orange gives the network what it needs.  It’s an extraordinary, deeply human piece of work.



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."