‘Orange Is the New Black,’ behind bars
Netflix dramedy succeeds in capturing life in a women's prison
July 9, 2013
Thanks to many disreputable movies, the term “women’s prison” is often associated in people’s minds with the term “shower scene.” The creators of Netflix’s new comedy-drama series “Orange Is the New Black” address that problem right away.
In the opening moments of the first episode, the main character, a convicted felon named Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), is seen bathing in several different shots, including one in which she’s sharing a shower with her girlfriend, Alex (Laura Prepon).
Cut to now, and Piper is showering in a dingy prison bathroom as a tough-looking fellow inmate warns her that there’d better be some hot water left. She’s wearing handmade slippers because the showers are full of fungus.
The show’s creators have thus signaled that this won’t be your typical woman-in-prison story, and they largely keep their word. The characters are well written and well played, and the comedy and drama spring naturally from the premise. Though Netflix subscribers probably won’t be moved to devour the 13-episode first season in one marathon session, the series should keep them entertained and coming back for more.
Streaming on Netflix starting this Thursday, July 11, “Orange Is the New Black” is based on a memoir of the same name by Piper Kernan, who, like her fictionalized counterpart, became involved with a lesbian drug dealer when she was in her early 20s. Years later, when she was engaged to be married, the law caught up with her and she plea-bargained the charges down to a 13-month sentence in federal prison.
In the first episode, Piper and her fiancé, Larry (Jason Biggs), drive to a fictional federal pen in upstate New York so she can “self-surrender.” Having read some how-to-survive-in-prison books, Piper tells Larry she’s worried that because her eyes are puffy, the other inmates will know she’s been crying and will assume she’s weak.
The prison proves to be both more and less scary, in ways that neither Piper nor we expect. The first day, she makes the mistake of complaining about the food to Red (Kate Mulgrew), a middle-aged Russian-American woman who is the head cook. The cafeteria workers refuse to feed Piper, and everyone else is too afraid of Red to sneak her anything to eat.
In the second episode — six were made available for review — Piper tries to apologize, but Red explains coldly that apologies are worth nothing and that to accept one would be a sign of weakness. Through flashbacks, we learn Red’s back story: She got into trouble after trying to befriend the wives of some gangsters.
Other episodes focus on other inmates. The prison hairdresser is a transsexual named Sophia (Laverne Cox), a married former firefighter who was convicted of credit-card fraud. The intimidating Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst) ran a cleaning service that employed illegal aliens, but the crime that sent her to prison comes out of left field.
Although Piper, being white and upper-middle-class, is clearly meant to be the average viewer’s entry point into this world, her extramural life often feels less authentic than that of the more exotic inmates. The menschy Larry and Piper’s uptight, WASPy mother, Carol (Deborah Rush), are both stock characters, and Piper’s new career, starting an artisanal-bath-products company, sounds made-for-TV.
But the flashbacks make us believe that Piper is the sort of person who would have been aimless right after college and could have been drawn into a life that seemed dangerous and different. After all, the show’s creator, Jenji Kohan, also created “Weeds,” which revolved around a plausible suburban mom who was also a marijuana dealer.
We also feel Piper’s anger at Alex, who she thinks ratted her out to the authorities.
And the details of prison life feel real, especially the pervasive racism — the inmates are segregated — and the varieties of sexuality. Piper accepts a small favor from a fellow inmate called Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba), who decides that Piper is now her wife.
Other plots are driven by what would normally be trivialities: for example, the loss of a screwdriver and the sudden appearance of a chicken in the prison yard.
Taylor Schilling shines in the comic scenes in which she tries to explain her new life to her friends and family members on the other side.
“Orange Is the New Black” could address some of the serious issues it skirts, but then it would be a different show. What it does it does well.
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