June 7, 2014

THE SKED Season Premiere Review: “Orange Is the New Black” (Episodes 1-3)


One of the ways the emergence of Netflix as an important programming platform has changed the way we regard “television” is in its obliteration of the concept of a series “season” as something that takes place over an extended time.  When Netflix releases a full batch of episodes all at once, it’s more akin to a publisher making the latest in a series of books available for people to read at whatever time, and with whatever speed, they prefer.  I’m not an advocate of the all-out binge-watch–when a 700-page novel is published, there’s no need to read the entire thing in one sitting–but if logistics allow, it would make sense to watch the first 3 hours of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK‘s second season together, since collectively the trio serve to pull this volume of series creator Jenji Kohan’s work into full gear.

Orange, for anyone late to the party, has itself been a revolutionary act of popular art.  Although House of Cards put Netflix on the map as a source of high-class original programming, and Hemlock Grove pulled in plenty of lower-grade eyeballs, Orange is the show that’s given the service its true zeitgeist moment.  Inspired by a work of nonfiction by Piper Kerman, it tells the story of the fictionalized Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a blonde, lovely, upper-middle-class woman sentenced to 15 months in federal prison for her part many years earlier in transporting money for the drug ring operated by her girlfriend at the time, Alex Vause (Laura Prepon).  The what the hell am I doing here? story of a white person plunged into a darker world without privilege is nothing new, but what Kohan did with it was–as the show went on, it stopped being the story of Piper alone, and became the saga of Litchfield Federal Prison in general, featuring all her fellow inmates and even the prison administration, whatever their various ethnicities, sexualities, ages and body-types, not as adjuncts to the white heroine, but as vivid characters in their own right.  These women (and the occasional man) were brilliantly imagined and performed, by a cast almost completely made up of actresses hardly anyone had ever noticed before, and their stories were (at least) as captivating as Piper’s.  Orange was egalitarian television in a way no other “network” had ever attempted.  Piper became more and more a genuine part of Litchfield, and so did viewers.

The first two hours of Orange‘s second installment play to fans’ issues about Piper’s position within the prison and the series by separating them.  Hour 1, written by Kohan and Producer Tara Herrmann, and directed by Jodie Foster (who directed one of last year’s hours as well), is an unconventional way to begin:  a completely Piper-centric episode.  We pick up one month after the events of last year’s finale, with Piper uncertain about just how much she injured her nemesis Doggett aka Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), events that aren’t completely clarified until Hour 3.  Piper is pulled out of solitary one day without explanation, and for almost the first half of the episode, she and we have no idea where she’s going or why.  She ends up in a Chicago prison with heavier security (the inmates are confined to their rooms for most of every day), faced with an entirely new group of strange, threatening fellow inmates, including one whose obsession with astrological charts becomes dangerous, and others who’ve hit upon a system to transport cigarettes via the backs of trained cockroaches.  She’s actually relieved when one of the male trustees turns out to be merely a hitman on the outside, rather than a rapist.  (At times, the hour could almost be a planted pilot for an Orange spin-off.)  Piper has no idea whether this situation is permanent, a punishment for her beating of Pennsatucky, but finally learns that she’s in Chicago to testify at the trial of Alex’s boss in the drug ring, and that Alex is in the same prison.  When Piper and Alex are together, things rarely go well, and Piper ends the hour even more embittered than she’d been before.  The hour is a showcase for Schilling, whose superb work on Orange is often overlooked as less (literally) colorful than that of the actresses who surround her.  Schilling has taken Piper a long way from the narcissistic flower who entered prison, and has beautifully captured the ways that the experience has both emptied out and strengthened the character.

Hour 2, conversely, has no Piper in it at all.  Written by Kohan and both directed and photographed by Michael Trim, the show’s cinematographer (a feat he repeats in Hour 3), it could have been titled “Meanwhile, Back In Litchfield…”  The episode catches us up to date with all the other characters in the ensemble, and the featured player is Taystee (Danielle Brooks).  In her flashbacks, we meet a new and important character, Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), a local heroin distributor who became Taystee’s surrogate mother, and had a Fagin-like relationship with the young people she raised and trained to work in her business.  By the end of the hour, Vee has arrived at present-day Litchfield as a new inmate.  The present-day storyline is built around a hilarious Mock Jobs Fair for the inmates, which Taystee takes far more seriously than the women around her (the montage of pseudo-job interviews is priceless), and we learn that she had wanted to ride her impressive math skills to success in business from the time she was a girl receiving encouragement only from Vee.

Hour 3, written by Story Editor Lauren Morelli, brings Piper back to Litchfield, and confirms the sad assumption that Taystee, embroiled in Vee’s schemes since her youth, will be so again.  Vee has a history at Litchfield–she and Red (Kate Mulgrew), now deposed as queen of the kitchen, have a long-standing relationship–and she crafts her plans very shrewdly, using a cigarette pack she’d hidden decades before to bargain her way to a favor from Mendoza (Selenis Leyva), the new head of the kitchen.  (The cigarettes are long stale, but Mendoza doesn’t know that.)  The flashbacks provide fascinating backstory for Suzanne, aka Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba), whose upbringing as the adopted daughter of a suburban white couple who didn’t think they could get pregnant (they subsequently did, to an angelic blonde girl) is entirely unexpected.  Vee instantly calculates that Suzanne longs for the unconditional love and approval she didn’t receive as a child, and by the end of the hour, Suzanne is Vee’s new acolyte.

There’s much more, of course.  Orange teems with characters, and even Larry (Jason Biggs), who one might have thought would fade away since he’s not in Litchfield and has broken up with Piper, is still very much around (and has a strong, if disconcerting, scene with Piper’s best friend Polly, a new mother).  Larry’s story will intersect with one of the other running plotlines of the season, about a reporter looking into corruption at Litchfield.  Daya (Dascha Polanco) is still pregnant by the guard Bennett (Matt McGorry), Morello (Yael Stone) finally has her heart broken when the fiancee she trusted becomes engaged to someone else–to be married on what was supposed to be their wedding day, no less–and so on.  Every hour is packed with surprises, not just in plotting, but in the way Kohan, the other writers and the actors funnel our sympathies into places we never would have anticipated.  Orange is fully as remarkable as it was when the prison doors last closed behind us.


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."