My favorite dramas are those which manage to immerse me in a world strikingly different from but still (in a vicarious but nevertheless potent manner) comparable to my own. Breaking Bad, which started out by exploring the seedy criminal underbelly of modern-day New Mexico, featured dozens of colorful characters (perennial badass Mike Ehrmantraut, refined sociopath Gus Fring) and a highly ambitious central plot (a mild-mannered chemistry teacher comes to rule the meth business with an iron fist) but was never less than addictively believable. To give a more far-out example, Game of Thrones is set in the high-fantasy world of Westeros, but its inhabitants are shockingly relatable as flesh-and-blood human beings, and viewers are quickly able to look past the show’s more fantastical elements to find the compelling, realistic human drama beneath. I’m pleased to say that, for many of the same reasons, I can add Netflix’s hilarious, crazy and brilliant Orange Is The New Black to that list.
Set in Litchfield Penitentiary, a women’s federal prison in upstate New York, Orange Is The New Black centers on Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a successful and happy young woman engaged to marry the nebbish Larry (Jason Biggs). Her biggest worry in the world is trying to launch a hand-made soap venture with her sister – that is, until her past catches up with her. In her early twenties, when Piper was young and wild, she had a lesbian fling with an international drug smuggler named Alex (Laura Prepon), and carried a few suitcases for her over the years. Piper has put that part of her life in her rear-view mirror, but it comes back to bite her in a spectacular fashion when she’s named during Alex’s trial and sentenced to 15 months in jail. Suddenly, Piper is behind bars and forced to face the complexities of prison politics, an identity crisis, crazed inmates and her own feelings about Alex – who, by the way, has a cot right down the hall.
One of the most impressive accomplishments of showrunner Jenji Kohan with Orange Is The New Black is how quickly she establishes Litchfield as its own world. Prison is a different kind of place, with its own set of official and informal rules and expectations. It’s the kind of place where one verbal snafu can inspire the kitchen staff to starve out a prisoner, and where the concept of a magic chicken is enough to turn the prison hierarchy on its head. It’s the kind of place where a sharpened toothbrush, or a missing screwdriver, can serve as a deadly weapon, and where something as a simple as a stick of gum can spark a heated romance. It’s a fascinating, terrifying and absolutely thrilling world to be dropped into – both for Piper and for the audience.
Refreshingly, though Piper is marketed as the lead of the series, and her sexual reawakening does help to move the series forward, Orange Is The New Black is really all about its ensemble. Some of the season’s best episodes, like “Lesbian Request Denied” and “Bora Bora Bora,” turned the spotlight on transgender inmate Sophia (Laverne Cox, above) and drug addict Tricia (Madeline Brewer), to stunning effect. It’s hard (and mostly pointless) to pick the best characters out of what is really an embarassment of riches, but Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (as brought to life by the phenomenal Uzo Aduba) is probably one of the most interesting characters on television right now, and Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson (Danielle Brooks) handily delivers side-splitting comic relief without sacrificing an ounce of emotional pathos.
For her part, Schilling is a terrific lead, selling Piper’s fish-out-of-water naivete, gradual personality shift and eventual acceptance of her status as an inmate. The actress has great comic timing and nails every one of the deliciously snarky lines that Orange Is The New Black‘s superior crew of writers send her way, but she’s also believable as a three-dimensional dramatic character. Looking back over the course of the series, I have a greater appreciation for Schilling’s performance than I did when I was watching the show for the first time. Piper’s journey is a complicated one, and the horrific place she’s left in when the final episode of the season fades to black suggests that the worst for her is still to come, but Schilling hits every note along the way.
I could talk about all of the fine acting on display in Orange Is The New Black for much longer, and it would be absolutely exhausting. Suffice to say that every member of this ensemble is a treasure – even the men of this female-powered show, from sinister sadsack guard Pornstache (Pablo Schreiber) to despicable supervisor Sam Healy (Michael J. Harney). Kohan’s ambitious vision for Orange is the New Black – to bust the doors open on the American prison system while humanizing the inmates so often stereotyped in film culture – is an admirable one, and that she comes very close in this first season says a lot about her ability to work quickly and effectively.
Of course, Orange Is The New Black is not without its weaknesses. Some flashback episodes are handled more gracefully than others, and the development of series antagonist Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett is surprisingly subpar. Whereas the other characters are fleshed out, the conclusion of season one still leaves Pennsatucky feeling like a one-note, cartoonish baddie. That’s a shame, considering that actress Taryn Manning absolutely kills her character’s few introspective moments. In the end, however, Pennsatucky is more an obstacle for Piper than an individual unto herself. There’s still time to change that in season two, and I really hope that Kohan and the writers do.
Orange Is The New Black‘s first season also has a huge problem in the form of Larry, Piper’s fiancee. Biggs does the best he can in the role, but the character is outside the prison walls, and so he never gains the relevance he needs. Instead, he seems shoehorned into the story. Thanks to American Pie, Biggs is a familiar face, but now that Orange Is The New Black has established its ensemble, it’s time for Larry to exit stage left and let Piper focus on getting out of Litchfield alive.
Still, Orange Is The New Black is one of the strongest shows on television right now, both in terms of its drama and its comedy. Don’t pass up the best, and most thrillingly original, offering from Netflix yet.
The Blu-Ray for Orange Is The New Black: The Complete First Season is presented in 1080p High Definition. As far as video quality goes, this is a typically impressive release, with strong attention to detail and a rich color pallette. Skin tones are appropriately natural, and the visuals of Litchfield are somehow dynamic despite the building’s intentionally drab layout. The differences in camera quality are more noticeable than when I watched the series on Netflix at a lower quality, which is occasionally distracting but couldn’t really be avoided. Additionally, some scenes, mostly the flashbacks, are a little too soft. As a whole, however, fans of the series will be satisfied with the video quality here.
The set also received a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Track, which is more than enough to capture the diverse accents, sounds and songs of Litchfield (from Regina Spektor’s rocking title song “You’ve Got Time” to the Christmas pageant in the final episode). No issues whatsoever with the audio on this release; dialogue is appropriately crisp and always clear, and background sound effects are appropriatley implemented.
Special features on Orange Is The New Black: The Complete First Season include:
- “New Kid on the Cell Block” (6:55)
- “It’s Tribal” (7:36)
- “Mother Hen: Red Runs the Coop” (6:35)
- “Prison Rules” (7:42)
- Gag Reel (6:34)
- Audio Commentaries
- UltraViolet Digital Copy
The featurettes are all very strong, each focusing on a different aspect of Orange Is The New Black. “New Kid on the Cell Block” is the most well-rounded by far, turning the spotlight onto the series’ source material (memoir Orange Is The New Black: My Year In A Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman). In addition to Kohan and various actors and actresses from the show, Kerman is interviewed for the featurette. She discusses the challenges Kohan found in adapting her book and the messages of both the book and the show about the American prison system.
“It’s Tribal” focuses on the segregated groups in prison and the reasons why they exist. Taryn Manning, who plays homicidal Christian inmate Pennsatucky, aptly describes it as “high school except a little more dangerous,” while Laura Prepon (who plays Alex) adds that “having a support group is extremely important.” Kerman states that she encountered similar systems at the prisons she was incarcerated in. Kohan and Kerman were clearly aware of the potential accusations of stereotyping that critics could throw at the show, and they made a point of turning that accusation on its head. “While playing potential stereotypes, we also get to crush them,” sums up Natasha Lyonne (who plays jaded inmate Nicky Nichols).
I didn’t enjoy “Mother Hen: Red Runs the Coop” quite as much as the other featurettes, mostly because I never found Red to be all that interesting as a character, but it still offers some thoughtful commentary on her power within Litchfield and what makes the fiery character tick. If you’re interested in hearing more about her, this is a well-made and informative extra.
“Prison Rules” is, as you might expect, all about the spoken and unspoken rules in Litchfield. Kerman apparently gave the writers her prison rulebook to work from, so some of the more shocking rules on display in the show are actual, modern-day practices (for example, the lights are never turned off in prison, which means inmates are never as fully rested as they might be living on the outside). It’s interesting food for thought, especially when the cast and crew reflect on the absolute control that the guards and warden exert over their prisoners at Litchfield.
I have to say, I laughed out loud multiple times during the gag reel. Given the tremendous cast, I shouldn’t be surprised that there’s so much comic gold in this extra, but some of the ad-libbed dialogue is so terrific that I wish it had been left in. If the gag reel is a good indicator of the actual atmosphere on set, everyone had a great time making Orange Is The New Black, and there were plenty of light-hearted moments even while filming the heavier scenes.
The audio commentaries are great, featuring lively discussions with Kohan, Mark Burley and Lisa Vinnecour. There are only two of them – for pilot “I Wasn’t Ready” and finale “Can’t Fix Crazy” – but listeners really get a picture of how thoroughly the makers of Orange Is The New Black planned out where they wanted their story to go, planting future plot devices in early episodes and carefully ensuring that certain characters were developed in very particular ways. Fans will get a lot out of the two hours.
One caution: there are spoilers for the entire first season in the featurettes and the commentaries. Resist the urge to watch them until you finish the season – there are things in there that you definitely don’t want spoiled.
Orange Is The New Black is a strikingly original show in the way it shirks labels – it’s sometimes painfully funny, but it would be too easy to brand it a comedy, and the drama is compelling but usually lacks the seriousness often associated with that genre. Instead, Orange Is The New Black transcends those genres, combining them to create something better and far more interesting. I’m confident in saying that it’s one of the smartest, funniest and most spellbinding shows on television right now. The Blu-Ray is solid all around, so there’s nothing that should prevent you from picking up a copy. Although, make sure you clear your schedule for a few days – just because Orange Is The New Black is on disc as opposed to on Netflix, that doesn’t mean you’ll be any less tempted to binge-watch.
With stellar acting, strong execution and borderline-brilliant writing, the first season of Orange Is The New Black is criminally good, addictive television.