Getting first things out of the way straight off the bat – I wasn’t a fan of Jenji Kohan’s “Weeds”, which at first made me somewhat disinterested in the idea of watching her newly co-created show “Orange Is The New Black” – truth be told, it was the involvement of Jason Biggs & Laura Prepon that initially had me on board.
Not that “Weeds” was a bad show or anything like that – it was just that with time competitors like “Breaking Bad”, “Mad Men” & multiple other shows that instantly caught my attention, “Weeds” didn’t make the cut as “must see” TV. I have to say after watching “OITNB” that I can’t help but feel I may have been missing out on something if the quality was as good as what is on show in Netflix’s latest original series – and I may have to go back & revisit it. The sad thing is, if I told you some of the shows that I dismissed initially but later fell in love with, you’d wonder if you were watching the same shows as I was…
After the outstanding “House of Cards”, decidedly mixed “Hemlock Grove” & hilarious “Arrested Development”, Netflix have continued their impressive ventures into original programming with a 13 part first series that rivals (if not exceeds) the very best that the “normal” providers have to offer.
Based (at times very loosely) on the real life story of Piper Kerman, “OITNB” focuses on the experiences of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) & her Fiancée Larry (Jason Biggs)as she starts a 15 month sentence for being a one-time money-carrying assistant to her former lover Alex (Laura Prepon) – only to find that said former lover / Drug Syndicate major player is also locked up with her. Ah, what kind of wacky escapades will happen I wonder?
Truthfully – very few of the wacky kind (with the exception of one episode centring around a legendary Chicken that may or may not be full of Heroin / Guns / Money or other goodies depending on who is telling the story). This isn’t “Oz” by any means, so don’t go into the show thinking it’s going to be some type of overly dark oppressive story – but “OITNB” is most definitely a (very) black comedy at its core, so our heroines fate, while sometimes in peril, is never truly in question.
Schilling very capably handles the transformations of Kerman, along with the extraordinary performances from background players that would normally remain just that – in the background. It’s a testament to where the extra-long format allowed for Netflix’s shows really avails itself to creativity – it can fully flesh out & add to a story that may have gone unexplored on one of the primetime networks, but with the additional 20+ minutes added to the length of an episode, the opportunity for a richer experience has proven to be an extremely attractive market for the likes of Kohan, Eli Roth, Kevin Spacey & David Fincher. Sometimes, as I noted in my review of “Arrested Development”, the lengthier running time can in fact be a detriment (several episodes could have stood substantial trimming in that case), but with “OITNB”, there aren’t any episodes or storylines that feel like a chore to sit through – editing is tight without being constrictive, and the writing is simply top-notch.
As far as the casting goes, I’ll freely admit that I wasn’t aware of Taylor Schilling before sitting down to watch the show (as much as I loved “Argo”, I couldn’t recall her being in it at all & still can’t…) but after seeing her so completely fill out her role here, I can’t imagine why I wasn’t more aware of her before – a role that could so easily have been overdone in the hands of another Actor is instead handled to a tee here – just the right amount of naivety mixed with uneasiness & fear of an overwhelmingly oppressive environment is used beautifully – and that early fear I had from the previews / trailer of “Entitled girl has adventures in prison & discovers so much more about herself than her shallow desires & thoughts” was nowhere to be found in the final product.
Similarly, the combination of Jason Biggs (forever Jim from “American Pie” to many) & Laura Prepon (Donna as she is known in my house) for what amount to relatively straight roles may surprise some – but for fans of their work beyond their “greatest hits”, the satisfaction is there in seeing the roles also tackled with restraint & great consideration to the tone of the show that you can now point to them and say “See! I Told you!”. Prepon in particular stands out in a stellar performance as Alex, as does Kate Mulgrew as “Red” – one of the many background players who could have come across as a caricature of the “Sassy Cook”, but instead benefits tremendously from the time given to develop her character (she also has one of the best one-liners of the entire series that made me laugh out loud for quite a while – it comes in the aforementioned “The Chickening” episode). “OITNB” really does subscribe to the theory that if you match great actors with great writing, then you really can’t go wrong. So many actors I’m seeing for the first time in this have impressed me incredibly with their work – Uzo Aduba as Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren, Yael Stone as Lorna Morello & Dascha Polanco as Dayanara “Daya” Diaz to name a few all bring their A-game to the show, alongside familiar faces such as Natasha Lyonne & Taryn Manning.
Although all do exceptional work here – there are three supporting characters who stood out in my mind, and who should definitely be applauded: Constance Shulman as Yoga Jones, Laverne Cox as Sophia Burset & Michelle Hurst as Miss Claudette – all alternating between heart-warming & devastating performances each.
So – as you can tell, I really enjoyed the experience of watching “Orange Is The New Black” – unlike the binge marathons of “House of Cards” & “Arrested Development”, I took my time with it (hence the review coming now) & I think it made the experience better. It wasn’t reliant on cliff-hangers like “Hemlock Grove” which would relentlessly push you towards the next episode, so it felt a bit more natural in progression. It has been renewed for a second season (before the first premiered), so Netflix are also obviously very happy with the show they have on their hands. If you haven’t already given it a watch, “Orange Is The New Black” is available for streaming on Netflix Instant, and I highly recommend it.