Sunday, August 25, 2013

Orange is the New Black (Season One)

Creator: Jenji Kohan
Starring: Taylor Schilling, Laura Prepon, Michael J. Harney, Michelle Hurst, Kate Mulgrew, Jason Biggs, Taryn Manning, Uzo Adubo, Natasha Lyonne, Laverne Cox, Dascha Polanco, Yael Stone, Danielle Brooks, Pablo Schreiber
Original Airdate: 2013

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Had you told me that of Netflix's House of Cards, Arrested Development and Orange is the New Black, the latter was going to be their most successful foray into original programming, I never would have believed it. But it is. And in a big way and by a decent margin. But while it was easy to tell he other two at least had great potential on paper just by the nature of the creative pedigree involved, this project was a bigger question mark. With an untested lead, a so-so premise and "from the creator of Weeds" above the title, viewers would be forgiven for not being instilled with much confidence in the project and keeping expectations low. And that turns out to be an asset the series didn't even need because, by any standard, it's a fun ride.

Orange is the New Black Opening Title Card
It definitely wasn't a given that this would creatively come together as well as it does, that the performances and writing would be this spot-on, a new female star would be made and the careers of a couple of talented, but written off 90's holdovers would resurrected. All this in a women's prison dramedy with a cast so large and diverse it should be difficult enough to remember all the characters' names, much less care about them. And yet by about even the mid-way point, I not only cared about every one of them and knew their names, but could give you a full background history on each. It's the very definition of a true ensemble, where everyone stands out and lifts already strong material to an even higher plane.

Based on Piper Kerman's 2010 memoir of the same name about her experiences in prison, Orange is the New Black follows Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a Connecticut businesswoman living in New York who's suddenly sentenced to 15 months at Litchfield federal women's prison after being convicted of transporting money for her drug smuggling former lesbian lover, Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) over a decade ago. Now engaged to struggling, neurotic writer Larry Bloom (Jason Biggs), both strongly believe they can overcome the interruption and strain her sentence will have on their relationship, already making plans to pick up where they left off when she's released. It's a belief that slowly erodes as Piper is absorbed into the prison hierarchy and exposed to a diverse group of inmates, each of whom have an interesting story of their own. Torn between desperately wanting to fit in and also fly under the radar because she sticks out like a sore thumb, Piper's problems in and out of the slammer are further complicated by the discovery that Alex is also serving time at Lichfield and may have implicated her in the crime.

What sets the highly addictive series apart is its even-handed and highly entertaining depiction of the prison and its inmates. The show gives off such a distinct vibe of community behind the bars, it's easy to lose track of the fact that we're being taken inside a women's penitentiary and instead mistake it for high school, college or even a sleepaway camp with some really strict rules for behavior and the accompanying risk of being killed. But the most impressive thing about the show is how it takes what could be have easily been branded a criticism and turns it into the most insightful and revealing examination of prison life since The Shawshank Redemption or Oz. Of course, they'll be the predictable complaints that the jail is too clean and that this is prison seen through "White Hollywood's" eyes. While I can't argue with either point, it's easy to speak to its irrelevance. This is a dramedy and is under no obligation to present itself as a documentary on the horrors of life behind bars. If it was, someone like Piper Chapman would more than likely have an even tougher time than she does, and that's assuming she'd even survive at all.

Piper and Larry say their goodbyes in Ep. 1.1 ("I Wasn't Ready")
Writer and executive producer Jenji Kohan hits on different, more important truths, causing us to stop and think how easy it might be to get sent jail for a couple of horrible choices, or even worse, be a victim of unfortunate circumstances. This is true for some, but certainly not at all of the characters, and while it doesn't absolve any of them for what they've done, it but does give us an access point we've never had before in a show of this genre. Kohan accomplishes this by interspersing Lost-style flashbacks depicting the prisoners' lives before they arrived at Lichfield and what led them there. Some work better than others and it still doesn't flow quite as well with the current action as was probably intended, but it's mostly successful because the characters feel so richly developed by the writers and diversely talented cast of actresses. The supporting cast is so strong that at times it's hard not to view Piper as a vessel through which all the other inmate stories are being told. And it's easy to pick the ones that leave the strongest impression in terms of both writing and performance.

"Red" (Kate Mulgrew) is a former restauranteur with ties to the Russian mob who serves as sort of a mother figure to the girls and runs the prison's kitchen with no less diligence and dedication than she would her own establishment. Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) is a recovering drug addict who turned to Red to help get clean when she first arrived. Uzo Aduba plays Suzanne (AKA "Crazy Eyes"), a mentally unbalanced, obsessive inmate who's determined to make Piper her "prison wife." Laverne (Sophia Burset) is a transgender hairdresser sent to prison for credit-card fraud and is struggling to maintain a relationship with his wife and son while behind bars. Before being locked up, the feared Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst) ran a child-labor cleaning service and brings those same strict sensibilities to Lichfield. And that's just a small sampling of the outrageous characters.

It makes sense that the sheltered, people pleasing Piper would have major problems fitting in and try entirely too hard to do so in all the wrong ways. She's starved out after making disparaging comments about the food, assaulted in the shower, framed for weapon possession, locked in solitary confinement and even jokingly nicknamed "Taylor Swift." But what ends up being the backbone of the series is her love-hate relationship with Alex, which is far from old news. especially to Larry, who's trying to reconcile the fact that the woman he's engaged to is now not only a convicted criminal, but locked up with her ex.

Piper and Alex reconnect in Ep. 1.11 ("Tall Men With Feelings")
Having starred in a short-lived NBC medical drama, appeared in that awful big screen adaptation of Atlas Shrugged, co-starred in a sappy Zac Efron romance and briefly played Ben Affleck's wife in Argo, the little known, but recognizable Taylor Schilling just hasn't been able to catch on as a movie or TV star. Until now. There were few, if any, indications she was capable of a performance like this or able to go the places necessary to make this click, yet she does. What's most impressive is that the character isn't even all that likable and she does refreshingly little to hide that. Piper's definitely spoiled and self-centered enough for viewers to think that this whole prison experience could actually benefit her in some way since her current lifestyle seems to be a facade for masking everything else.

The most thrilling aspect of the character (and one Schilling pulls off extremely well) is seeing her realistically transform from terrified wallflower into full-fledged badass when she's pushed too far for too long. Her polar opposite is the free-spirited Alex, who's intelligently played by Laura Prepon in a turn made that much more impactful by the fact that she's an actress who looks and acts like she'd actually be able to handle herself in prison. The two have great chemistry together and while it's easy sympathize with both, it's Piper who we genuinely fear for because she's so far out of her element and ill equipped at navigating the territory. Or so it initially seems.

As Larry, Jason Biggs gets to play a slightly less likable but more complex variation on his Jim character from American Pie (complete with a passing reference), which is definitely the approach called for given the  comic nature of the role. But what's surprising is just how dramatic things things get between he and Piper down the final stretch and how up to the task Biggs is to deliver on it. There's a pivotal sequence that occurs toward the end of the season where Larry's world clashes with Piper's and the strain of their situation finally explodes, causing him to take an action that not only affects her life and safety behind bars, but the surprisingly fragile feelings of all the inmates at Lichfield. It's safe to say Piper's never quite the same after it, injecting the rest of the episodes leading in to the finale with a palpable sense of tension.

Michael J. Harney as Counselor Healy
 As intriguing as her relationships with Larry and Alex are, the odder one she forms with her counselor Sam Healy (Michael J. Harney), which starts as one thing before morphing into something else entirely at the drop of a dime, revealing he might just have as many personal issues as his inmates. It's really complicated and often amusing portrayal by Harney that culminates in one of the season's best scenes as he goes toe-to-toe with Piper and we're treated to a revealing explanation for his sudden passive-aggressive (bordering on bi-polar) behavior. And he's the "good" correctional officer. Reprehensibly played by Pablo Schreiber, the creepy Mendez (AKA "Pornstache") abuses his authority to smuggle drugs into the prison, make sexual advances toward the inmates, and blackmail and threaten them. Another guard, Bennett (Matt McGory) is actually engaged in a full fledged romantic relationship with inmate Daya (Dascha Polanco), who's serving time with her deadbeat mother Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriguez).

From the description of events, you wouldn't be mistaken in thinking it's a heavy show. But it's also very funny, with much of the comedy coming from supporting players we've never seen in anything before this. Aduba's performance as Crazy Eyes is more empathetic and hilarious than scary, offering up wide-eyed facial expressions that become the instant highlight of any episode in which she appears. Equally great is comedienne Lea DeLaria, who plays the tough but likable "Big Boo," a physically imposing, rough and tumble lesbian who definitely "wears the pants" in the many relationships she has with various inmates. The relentlessly upbeat and positive Lorna (Yael Stone) talks in a thick Boston accent of her upcoming wedding that may never happen while Janae Watson (Vicky Jeudy) is given one of the more intriguing flashbacks, as a shy high school track star falls into the wrong crowd in a desperate attempt to fit in. But it's the Presidentially named duo of Taystee Jefferson (Danielle Brooks) and Poussey Washington (Samara Wiley) who may as well be considered the Laurel and Hardy of Lichfield with their practical jokes and goofing around. When one is released, we're given a glimpse of just how difficult it is to adjust to the world outside after serving time and why a life behind bars may be preferable to some who feel as if they have no family or support when they get out.

Taryn Manning as Tiffany "Pennsatucky" Doggett
The two most memorable supporting performances are given by Mulgrew as Red and an unrecognizably uglified Taryn Manning as the prison's resident religious zealot and holy roller, Tiffany "Pennsatucky" Doggett. A meth mouthed drug addict and self-proclaimed faith healer who flies into fits of uncontrollable rage and insanity, she's easily the series' most dangerous character, if not just for the crime she was convicted for, then definitely for her sheer unpredictability. The 8 Mile vet completely disappears into this role in a way that's just flat-out frightening and at least worthy of an Emmy nod. Piper faces a lot of threats during her stay but Pennsatucky was really the only one inmate I believed was capable of legitimately killing her and Manning's bone-chilling work is the reason why. She also somehow manages to make it comical in the darkest possible way, proving that a Netflix, HBO, Showtime, or AMC was going to be the only home this series could possibly have. No major network or even mainstream feature film would have the guts to depict a villain like this. Especially a female one.

The show has also re-discovered what's increasingly become the lost art of an extended opening credit sequence, complete with an earworm inducing title theme. So ridiculously long and catchy you'd almost think it's a practical joke, Regina Spektor's "You've Got Time" is an original song written and recorded specifically for this show, and honestly, I wasn't a fan at first. Then I heard it a second time. And a third. And then over and over again in my head long after that before realizing how few showrunners realize how important the opening theme is and are willing to give it the allotted time it deserves. In this case you could even argue it's given more time than it deserves, but it's tough to complain when Spektor's emotional wailing interspersed with all the show's faces fits the series so well, becoming as much of a character as any of its actual ones.

The biggest question mark surrounds where the series goes from here considering its finale ("Can't Fix Crazy') is about twice as effective as the finishes of Netflix's two other series. The writers wisely save the most explosive moment for last, making it feel like a true cliffhanger in every sense. But a potentially big problem looms next season with the loss of Laura Prepon, who either decided to leave the series or was written out depending upon where you get your info. Considering the Piper-Alex relationship is basically the crux of the show, this isn't good news, despite the door still being open for a guest starring return down the road. If Prepon chose to leave, it's hard not to wonder what she's thinking as it's her best gig since Donna on That 70's Show, if not the most interesting she's landed in her career. She joins Biggs, Lyonne, and Manning as actors everyone's always liked, but wondered how much more they could do if ever given exceptional material. The answer is unsurprisingly "a lot."

Red (Kate Mulgrew) takes charge of her kitchen
It's also still somewhat of a worry that this series' creator ran her previous show into the ground long before it passed its expiration date. I'm not sure how a long a shelf life this can have considering the protagonist is only serving 15-month prison term, even if it's easy for that sentence to be creatively extended by the writers to buy some time. That Netflix isn't technically a "network" that releases ratings and are constantly working on churning out new programming should at least help keep that pressure off and alleviate concern of a potential burnout.

A binge-watching thrill that alternates between some really intense, heavy drama and often hilarious comedy, Orange is the New Black feels like the show that's nudged Netflix over the hump, cementing them as a major player in the TV distribution arena. And as strong as their other two shows are, I'm not sure they accomplish what this manages to do with seemingly far fewer tools at its disposal. Aside from a few minor issues that can be ironed out over time, this is about as close to a perfect start as a debuting series can have. Here's hoping it hasn't peaked and only gets better from here.

1 comment:

Daniel said...

Probably one of the best ensemble shows I've seen since The Wire. Glad to read you enjoyed this just as much as I did.