Nancy Botwin, the pot-dealing single mom of Showtime’s Weeds, changed the rules for TV’s female protagonists. Now her creator, Jenji Kohan, is back with an even darker, funnier tale of another woman’s brush with American criminality.
Orange is the New Black is based on the memoir of Piper Kerman, whose post-college phase as a courier for heroin dealers took a decade to catch up with her. Don’t let the flippant title fool you: Orange is scary, smart and relevant, and it will make you wonder why no one thought to give the Oz formula a dose of estrogen before now.
For Netflix’s streaming-only series, Kerman has been renamed Piper Chapman and brought to life by Taylor Schilling, who manages to stitch together a likable fish-out-of-water persona from equal parts manic pixie, spoiled idealist and defiant survivor.
All 13 episodes of Orange is the New Black’s first season will be available Thursday on Netflix.
On the Brooklyn trust-fund continuum, Schilling’s Chapman is closer to yuppie than to hipster when she is named a co-conspirator in an international heroin ring. She leaves behind Alex (Laura Prepon), the lover who introduced her to crime’s adrenaline rush, for a future marketing herb-scented soaps.
Instead of risking trial, she takes a deal for 15 months at Club Fed. It doesn’t take long for her to freak out once she’s on the inside.
“I’m wearing granny panties and I’ve only spoken to white people,” she babbles at her fiancé, Larry, on visiting day. “And you’re not supposed to eat the pudding because it’s been to Desert Storm.”
Not realizing that she’s being hazed and starved, Larry (Jason Biggs) tries to cheer her up. “You look great. Your face is all cheekbony.”
We get to see happier times with Larry, back when they were doing a weeklong lemon juice- cayenne cleanse as a couple. Now, instead of having phone sex, Larry describes heirloom tomatoes and bulk almonds from Whole Foods.
The scripts smuggle in sharp-edged consumer-culture references with abandon. When Chapman is issued her institutional canvas slippers, she lights up: “They’re like Toms!” She reads Gone Girl in the yard and declares it “almost good.”
It’s that precious, entitled attitude that keeps getting Chapman in trouble with the other inmates. They call her “Taylor Swift” and cut off locks of her hair to make extensions.
Eventually, Chapman retreats to her mattress, sobbing and making artisanal bath products from contraband produce and cocoa butter. Martha Stewart might as well be sharing her cell.
It’s not exactly Midnight Express in Litchfield, the show’s fictional penitentiary, but the show does expand on Kerman’s experiences, adding characters and levels of conflict on both sides of the razor wire.
“Every sentence is a story,” the show’s posters declare. And that’s the rhythm Orange dances to: one inmate back story per 50-minute episode, revealed in flashbacks and whispered rumors.
Taystee (Danielle Brooks), one of the first black inmates to interact with Chapman, seems to fill the expected role of the sassy, plus-sized jokester – until she doesn’t. The other minorities at Litchfield will soon defy Chapman’s and our notions of what put them there.
As the extroverted loudmouth Nicky, Natasha Lyonne mines her own real-life troubles. A tainted heroin needle led to a life-threatening heart infection for both character and actress, and Lyonne shows off a scar that required no makeup artistry.
Nicky is one of the show’s unabashed “forever” lesbians – some just dabble until their release date – but anyone hoping for some ’70s-style women-in-prison exploitation will probably be disappointed by that whole realism thing.
“Maxi pads with wings are back in the commissary,” a voice drones over the PA system. The deadpan bulletins about mealtimes and bad movies are a nod to the announcements that tied together the narrative threads of M*A*S*H.
It’s a good device for a show that will rotate directors including Jodie Foster, Andrew McCarthy and Matthew Penn, and Netflix already has ordered a second season for 2014. After the success of House of Cards, Orange is the New Black should establish Netflix as a destination for discerning viewers who want to binge-watch more great shows on their own time.