Friday, June 19, 2015

Orange is the New Black: Season 1

Weeds was an awesome show. Not only did series creator Jenji Kohan manage to juggle both drama and comedy successfully, but she made all the characters come alive and likable regardless of some of the effed up stuff they ended up having to do to survive. Sure there were some hiccups along the way - the lackluster sixth season, the way the Celia character (Elizabeth Perkins) was treated as the show went on (basically becoming a tiring lightning rod of hate that grated on the nerves) and some dumb developments that most long running shows have to deal with then they’ve been on for eight seasons. Regardless, it went out on a high note and had me anxiously awaiting Kohan’s next project. 

And out of nowhere comes her Netflix exclusive series Orange is the New Black which has taken the web by storm.
This is the story of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), who a decade ago was in a relationship with a drug smuggler (Laura Prepon) and has been named as her accomplice. Jailed and separated from her loving fiancée (Jason Biggs), Chapman must now learn adapt to her new surroundings.

The best kind of comedy, at least for me, comes from good drama. Fortunately Orange is the New Black is rife with both in equal measure and makes for one of the most compelling and addictive shows I’ve ever seen. I have never ripped through a season of a show this quickly. Sure there are only 13 hour long interlacing episodes, but three days? Yes, I watched the entire series in three days. Damn you Jenji Kohan! Damn you with awesomeness!
Based on the memoir “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison” by Piper Kerman, the series is a group character study of a select number of the inmates that manage to find the humor in their tragic stories and day to day life in the ladies only lockdown. The group of actresses assembled here are truly talented and give each character their own personalities and nuances that bring them to life in ways that I am damn sure wasn’t described in the scripts. Some are better than others, but my top five are Natasha Lyonne as Nichols, Danielle Brooks as Tastee, Laverne Cox as Bursett, Michelle Hurst as Miss Claudette and the incomparable Kate Mulgrew as Red. You read that right, Kate Mulgrew, as in Star Trek: Voyager’s Captain Janeway. I will not go into details about each character in order to not spoil the surprises each one has in store for those who want to check the show out, but in my opinion these are some of the most well rounded characters I’ve seen since, well, Weeds.

Each episode features its own unique storyline along with a throughline for the entire season that involves Chapman coming to terms with her poor choices and learning to not be afraid of her surroundings. Each also follows a clichĂ© taken from Lost in which we get to see flashbacks that detail the pasts of some of the main players and how they ended up in prison with the others. The writing is smart and each episode gives you deeper insight into not only the inmates, but the prison employees as well. There are times when they are more interesting than some of the prisoners, especially Michael Harney as Healy the Guidance Counselor. When you find out what his ultimate deal is you will… fuck. Spoilers. Sorry. Trust me, it’s fascinating. The direction for each chapter is basically the same (one episode is directed by none other than Jodie Foster), the sets look authentic enough and the songs chosen are appropriate.
My main issues after having watched the entire season are kind of major. When all is said and done I found the main character of Chapman to be the weakest one of the bunch. Sure Taylor Schilling, who looks like a blonde clone of Katy Perry, plays the part with honesty and believability, but her character is very one note and isn’t all that likable. She’s a bitch, clingy and somewhat pathetic. I also took issue with how saccharine prison life is portrayed at times. Even in minimum security things are never as quiet and civilized as they are here. Some of the developments, such as an inmate falling in love with a guard and getting pregnant, are just dumb and used as generic filler for random episodes. I also am getting tired of seeing the talented Taryn Manning playing batshit crazy characters. Her part of the insanely religious Pennsatucky is so tiresome and annoying that whenever she would walk on screen I would inwardly groan. Some character arcs are wrapped up way too soon, some are dragged out too far. The main title sequence is also way too long, but that’s just me being nitpicky.

After the last episode had ended I tossed my remote control aside and said to myself “well isn’t that fucking great”. I wasn’t being pissy in a bad way, I was being pissy because I have to wait a year to find out what the solution will be for the big problem that was presented to me moments earlier would be. That’s the best compliment I can bestow upon this somewhat brilliantly conceived and at times hysterically funny new series.
Netflix is coming into their own with their original programming in such a way that it has begun to rival HBO’s dominance. Sure Hemlock Grove was a complete bust, but with Orange is the New Black, House of Cards and Arrested Development under their wing I foresee great things coming for the future of web-based entertainment.

4 out of 5

Note: This review was originally posted on July 15, 2013. I don't know how, but it was deleted during my reviewing hiatus. This is a repost that coincides with the forthcoming review of Season 3.

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