By Minna Xiao
A 15-month prison sentence has never looked more promising.
The latest addition to Netflix’s original television programming, which has given cable a run for its money, is the 13-episode “Orange Is the New Black,” created by Jenji Kohan of “Weeds.” Released in its entirety on July 11, the series spins a fresh prison dramedy based on Piper Kernan’s 2010 memoir of the same name. The show centers around Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), an upper-middle-class white woman whose perfectly yuppie life, as an artisanal soap maker with an unemployed writer fiancé called Larry (Jason Biggs), gets rudely turned upside down when a post-college relationship with a female international drug trafficker is dredged up from the past and lands her in a women’s federal penitentiary.
At first glance, this premise may seem all too familiar – the pretty, privileged heroine finds herself a hapless outsider in unknown territory and is forced to adapt. The juice-cleansing, “Mad Men”-watching Piper’s introduction to a world of door-less bathroom stalls and maxi pad flip-flops, with nothing more than a handbook’s guidance on how to survive prison, is rife with jokes. Schilling deftly plays the pampered and fragile Piper with the right amount of earnestness, bewilderment and a streak of tenacity. But the show’s true strength lies not in Piper’s fish-out-of-water tale, but rather in the richness of its supporting cast.
“Orange” could have easily relegated the other inmates to little more than one-dimensional caricatures, serving as nothing more than cheap laughs. Instead, the show truly shines through its ensemble cast of the other inmates, mostly female and largely non-white. There’s “Crazy Eyes” (Uzo Aduba), an unbalanced inmate who takes on Piper as her prison-wife; Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox), a transgender ex-fireman and the resident hairstylist; and Red (Kate Mulgrew), the Russian inmate who wields power at the top of the prisoner hierarchy as head of the kitchen. Natasha Lyonne gives a captivating performance as Nicky, a lesbian recovering addict, with a gripping combination of cynicism, brusqueness and vulnerability, and Michelle Hurst infuses her character of Miss Claudette, who ran an illegal child labor cleaning service, with a quiet dignity and power.
Kohan expertly uses flashbacks, liberally interspersed among each 51- to 60-minute episode, to reveal the back-stories of the inmates, and lend insight into how they ended up behind bars. A particularly notable storyline revolves around Burset, who turned to credit card fraud in order to pay for her gender reassignment surgery. Cox movingly plays a transgender woman who struggles to reconcile her need for self-realization with her guilt towards her long-suffering wife and the shame of their young son.
“Orange” is refreshingly frank in its treatment of race and sexuality, and very matter-of-fact in its presentation of the prison’s voluntary segregation by race. Even when the show veers towards darker fare and politically charged issues, such as the crass and misogynistic behavior of many of the prison’s male guards, or the seemingly irrational disparities in the lengths of prison sentences for difference crimes, “Orange” treads lightly and avoids becoming preachy. “Orange” eschews violence in favor of exploring how a group of women from a variety of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, with their own unique histories, interact and coexist. The result is a show that is both irreverent and poignant, both crude and insightful, but always engrossing.