When I first heard that Netflix would be releasing a few series this year, I was skeptical of the results. It didn't help that I wasn't crazy about season four of Arrested Development or House of Cards (dog killing in the first five minutes? I don't think so!), but Orange is the New Black, which premiered on Netflix last week, has me sold on the concept. With a solid seasoned cast, engaging script, and authentic storyline, OITNB might even be better than mainstream TV shows. It's more than good enough for regular television, but then we wouldn't get to see the dark side of female prison, which is crucial to the plot.
The 13-episode series centers on Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), an uppity blond from Connecticut who is sentenced to prison many years after holding drug money for her ex-girlfriend Alex (Laura Prepon), an international smuggler. Piper thought her troubled experimental days were behind her, but after someone outs her as an accomplice to the crime, she must say farewell to her fiance Larry (Jason Biggs) and do time in jail. They agree to remain a couple, but of course this becomes a bigger challenge than either of them anticipated. Her former flame Alex also happens to be serving a sentence in the same prison, adding stress, trauma, and even temptation to an already difficult situation. Did I mention the two of them never fully patched things up? Alex also doesn't take it so well that Piper has "gone back to men," nor does she buy that Piper is really a changed person.
The show, which is based on Piper Kerman's memoir of the same name, reveals the unforgiving, harsh, NSFW nature of female prison. Piper makes the egregious but understandable mistake of walking into the experience like she's above everyone else. She'd just dated someone who wasn't good for her in her early twenties, and who doesn't do that? She didn't kill anyone or run a drug den, so she's different from the others.
Once she settles into the prison and gets hazed by some of the inmates and workers, she gains humility and realizes she's no better than anyone else locked up. She even tells her mother this during a prison visit, which her dolled up mother uses to remind her that her eggs are getting cold and biological clock is ticking. Just the thing you need to hear in prison. Regardless, Piper recognizes that they've all done bad things and ultimately need each other to survive the aftermath.
The first few episodes paint Piper as an outsider who pities herself and feels totally lost without her fiance. After Piper insults the cafeteria food in front of the cook, she receives an English muffin with a used tampon inside. The cook then threatens to starve her out and shuts down the soda and vending machines during Piper's visitation hours with family, but once Piper stands up for herself, she gets her mediocre prison food privileges back. And you want to pat her on the back for it.
When she's not eschewing advances from fellow female inmates, she's being called Taylor Swift and mocked for having gone to college. The others think she's spoiled, naive, and insufferable, but of course they come around at some point. Ever her ex-girlfriend Alex becomes a friend. Then they have to worry about Tiffany Doggett (Taryn Manning), a meth addicted evangelist who thinks they're going to hell for their lesbian tendencies.
Sometimes it feels like Piper has everyone against her: the prison counselor and cook, every single employee, her inmates, and even her fiance when he watches Mad Men without her despite his promise not to. When she goes into solitary confinement thanks to her sociopath counselor who resents that he could never date someone like her in the real world, she seems to hear voices coming from the vent, and it's unclear whether she imagines them or is truly conversing with someone through the contraption. It's in these sort of scenes, however, that we see her come alive, and the show's constant flow of excitement definitely makes for interesting character development.
We see her transform from a disengaged inmate who appears to believe she's too good for her punishment into one who understands her surroundings and thinks of the others as allies. Though she clearly loves her fiance, who has resorted to masturbating without finishing out of respect for her, she becomes less dependent on his visits and phone calls as the season goes on. Is this a good or bad thing? I'm not sure, especially since she isn't always on her best behavior, if you know what I mean, but how boring would the series be without some relationship turbulence, which is pretty much a given in circumstances such as these?
Laura Prepon shines as the self-assured, witty, calm one that got away, Taryn Manning is hilarious as a stereotypical religious extremist, and Natasha Lyonne totally owns her role as a poor little rich girl who may never stop trying to get back at her parents. Like many great leads, Piper isn't likable all the time, especially when complaining about aspects of prison that most of her inmates had to put up with long before they were thrown behind bars. I don't have any experience with jail, but I think it's safe to assume it doesn't bring out the best in everyone, so I enjoy when Piper loses her temper, goes on a paranoid rampage, sasses off to other people, and breaks the rules.
Though depressing, frightening, and gross at times, OITNB is a must-see Netflix series, so if you don't have already have a subscription, you should totally get one just for this. I promise you'll thank me later, even (and especially if) it means you have to give up two frappucinos a month to pay for the service.
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