The thought comes and goes as fast as a car zipping alongside the impossible steel and barbwire cage of a correctional facility.
Would I survive?
When Jenji Kohan picked up Piper Kerman’s best selling memoir “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Woman’s Prison,” she knew that what drove the story of a peppy, middle class blonde turned prison inmate wasn’t survival. Kohan, the creator of Weeds, used the memoir as a launching point for a series that cuts into a deeper examination of prison culture and the insecurity that comes with figuratively hitting rock bottom.
Netflix’s fourth original effort, Orange is the New Black, doesn’t waste time on the fear of prison because the protagonist already accepted the inevitable. The show follows Piper Chapman, who is set to spend the next 15 months of her life in a women’s correctional facility because she had a drug-dealing ex-girlfriend 10 years earlier. Played by the relatively unknown Taylor Schilling, Piper trades a cozy life in Brooklyn with a new-fiancé, Larry (Jason Biggs), for an orange jumpsuit. If every inmate looks that good in orange, I might have to re-think my career choice.
OITNB paces itself well. It doesn’t overwhelm the audience by throwing Piper into a fish-out-of water-situation. It eases the transition from what seems like a picturesque early-30s life to the brute reality of a cold prison cell. We feel Kohan’s touch in scenes like where Piper interrupts her last romantic evening to sit on the toilet silently weeping or when Larry brings a sandwich to the prison for a symbolic last meal. Kohan does her best to recreate the heartfelt reality amid craziness that made Weeds so irresistible in its first few seasons.
Where OITNB differs from Weeds is that Kohan had more to gain by developing Piper’s backstory. Using flashbacks to break up the monotonous prison life, OITNB feeds us bits and pieces of Piper’s story instead of gorging us with too much lesbian lovemaking and drug trafficking. Without filling up on the backstory all at once, OITNB gives us just enough to stomach Piper as more than a pretty face, which her prison mates are reluctant grant her.
The success of the pilot starts and ends with Schilling’s exceptional performance. This is her first lead role, is she ready for the prime time? It’s daunting to follow in the footsteps of a well-received Kevin Spacey series and the superb collection of talent that Arrested Development returned with. But with OITNB, Schilling was put into a situation where she could blossom as the real face of the Netflix original content movement, just as Mary-Louise Parker became the face of Showtime’s resurgence almost a decade ago.
Schilling is paired with a familiar face, Jason Biggs, who is right at home playing the sappy romantic. The chemistry between Piper and Larry is most captivating during a scene presumably set in the weeks before Piper goes away. Larry goes for the win, pulling out a ring on the beach. The gesture is shaded by the impending prison sentence that threatens to tear them apart. “I gotta lock this shit down before you leave, Pips,” he says.
Piper’s prison crew justifies OITNB for Netflix. From the title sequence, a collection of inmates’ faces set to a Regina Spektor song, it is clear that the show wants to be more than a Piper Chapman videography. Kohan chose to use Kerman’s memoir because of the individual stories and faces that made the prison come alive. From Piper’s cellmates to the return of her ex-lover (played by Lauren Prepon of That 70s Show fame), OITNB has a funny cast and developes the characters without stepping on the toes of Schilling’s performance.
The cold water that splashes Piper’s naked body in the intro isn’t the warm bath she’s used to and when a heavy-set black woman teases Piper about having “them TV titties,” she smiles as if to say she’s ready to roll with the punches. As Piper tries to adapt, OITNB prepares to question the penal system and explore the racial and sexual boundaries of prison in a way we haven’t seen on TV before. As Pipers counselor says: “This isn’t OZ.”
Netflix renewed the show for a second season a week before it premiered. OITNB survived before it even entered the prison. Clearly, Netflix has confidence in Kohan and a cast with untapped potential. We can only hope OITNB won’t be eligible for parole anytime soon.
Best of the Rest:
- You have to appreciate the ode to American Pie when Jason Biggs talks about being open in his relationship, including an embarrassing “webcam horror.”
- “She failed to mention the lesbian lover who ran an international drug smuggling ring.”
- “Please keep my website updated”
Den of Geek Rating: 4 Out of 5 Stars