Orange Is the New Black: Season 1 created by Jenji Kohan (Netflix, Lionsgate Television)
Starring Taylor Schilling, Laura Prepon, Danielle Brooks, Taryn Manning, Jason Biggs, Kate Mulgrew, and Pablo Schreiber.
On its surface, a series about life in prison doesn’t seem too compelling. Most viewers need some sort of action or changes in setting to pique interest. There’s not much design to a prison setting. Everything is drab. Everyone is locked up. Movement is limited. How can plot develop? Yet, rejecting Orange Is the New Black due to setting limitations would be doing it a great disservice. The series works so far because of its commitment to relationships between its characters.
Yes, Orange Is the New Black is based off of a memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman. Yes, because Piper wrote a memoir, the narrative positions Piper as the protagonist. But to say Orange Is the New Black is about Piper (Chapman in the television series) is to paint this show with too broad a stroke.
Piper (Taylor Schilling) finds herself in women’s federal prison after being sentenced for her role as a “mule” in an international drug smuggling ring.
A bisexual in her younger days, Piper became entranced with her smuggler girlfriend, Alex (Laura Prepon). Now engaged to Larry (Jason Biggs), Piper is frustrated with the way her past has come to haunt her. She has to put her life on hold—both relationally and professionally—to serve her time.
Unluckily, Piper’s imprisonment coincides with Alex’s, meaning she’ll have to come to grips about living with the very person who sent her to jail.
Even though these relationships comprise the central component of the show, the strength of the writing lies with the development of an entire cast of characters.
Creator Jenji Kohan wisely chooses a Lost strategy in each episode, selecting an inmate for which she unearths the past pre-prison days. These flashbacks give depth and meaning to the relationships Piper creates in prison.
While the first couple episodes exhibit a frightened white girl unaware and unprepared for the harsh realities of prison, the rest of the season expands in such a way that the viewer sees the humanity behind the jumpsuit. And even more, we realize that Piper isn’t much more of a protagonist than the rest of the characters. They are all flawed. But those flaws create good television.
True, Orange Is the New Black has setting and plot limitations. It will never be an action-packed show. But it’s successful because it has conjured characters the viewer can get behind, associate with, and root for. They might be flawed, but aren’t we all? Orange Is the New Black is well worth your time investment.
Verdict: 4 out of 5