Orange is the New Black: Season One (Netflix)
Created by: Jenji Kohan
Starring (credited cast): Taylor Schilling, Laura Prepon, Michael J. Harney, Michelle Hurst, Kate Mulgrew, Jason Biggs
Based upon the book Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman, the past catches up with quiet, law-abiding, middle-class New York girl Piper Chapman (Schilling) as she is sentenced to 15 months inside a women’s prison for a drug-smuggling offence she committed ten years earlier.
Once inside, Chapman discovers that there are three main groups of inmates inside the prison: white, blacks and hispanics (“it’s not racist, it’s tribal”) and the writing gives all three groups a distinct voice through smart, authentic and often hilarious dialogue. The writers make a superb effort to ensure that as much of the ensemble as possible are fully rounded characters.
In fact, the characters are generally so well written for that picking a favourite is hard. Best friends Tastee and Poussey (“It’s not pussy, it’s Poussey. Accent ádroite, bitch!”) have excellent chemistry – the two actresses have been friends since school – and the best exchanges; while Shakespeare quoting ‘Crazy Eyes’ (Uzo Aduba) provides the biggest belly-laughs. Meanwhile, Chapman’s stoner survivalist brother Cal (Michael Chernus) is rarely seen but produces hysterics and provokes thought in equal measure.
Elsewhere, transgender inmate Sophia (Laverne Cox) steals entire episodes early on, as in a series of bold, honest and endearing flashbacks we see how she ended up committing credit-card fraud to pay for her medical procedures. It makes it a true shame when the character gets sidelined later on.
Other inmates get flashbacks to their life outside of prison too. These only take up a couple of minutes per episode; some are funny, some are tragic, some show how just one wrong choice can damage your life forever, and most are handled with care (they do seem to become a little more rushed and clichéd as the series goes on.)
The only main criticism I have of the show is the character of Tiffany Doggett (Taryn Manning) a crazy and religious zealot, and one of only two characters the series has in the way of an out-and-out villain (the other is George Mendez, a corrupt guard played with menace, impeccable comedy timing and a glorious moustache by The Wire’s Pablo Schreiber.) While the writers have taken great care to make every other character rounded and fully 3D, Doggett is written in broad, cartoonish strokes. Through no fault of Manning the religious zealot has been done far more effectively and in much less screen time elsewhere.
On a smaller note, the actions of Correctional Officer Healy (Harney) in the final episode are a little hard to buy as his callous – and short-sighted – actions come quite out of character. The end of the series had a difficult bridge to gap between being a set-up for Season Two but also serve as a conclusion in case the show did not get renewed (it has been) and it does feel a little clumsy as a result.
Any other criticisms of the show are so minor as to appear nitpicky. By the end of the series just about every character is warm and fuzzy around the edges – a lot of nasty characters early on become nice, caring and charming people (Oz this ain’t); and the intro credits are interminable, probably a case of the showrunners hiring a band to record a song and then feeling obliged to play most of the damn thing every episode.
The Verdict: As a drama it can be touching, sweet, uncompromising and dedicated to character; as a comedy it has made me laugh out loud at least once (and usually more) each episode. The talent level across the cast is high, the characters have authentic voices and the writing brings the main plot and several key sub-plots together perfectly for the last couple of episodes. Perfect binge viewing.