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With its original programming, this year, Netflix has taken us into the intense and cutthroat world of politics with House of Cards, a twisted and shadowy murder mystery with Hemlock Grove and the bizarre and whacky life of the Bluths and Funkes with Arrested Development's grand return. And come July 11, courtesy of Weeds' Jenji Kohan, Netflix will send us into a women's federal prison with the new original series Orange is the New Black, a dramedy that centers on a woman who must give up her comfortable Brooklyn life to spend a year serving time for a bad decision she made ten years prior.
Based on Piper Kerman's memoir Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison, and created by Weeds' Jenji Kohan, Orange is the New Black stars Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman, a polite New Yorker who made the mistake of helping her then-girlfriend Alex (Laura Prepon) transport drug money a decade ago. She did the crime and ten years later, she's doing the time, serving one year in a correctional facility, leaving her job, her family and her fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs) behind. Letting go of her previous life is only part of the challenge. She soon finds out that no amount of studying up on how to survive in prison could have prepared her for life on the inside.
The first episode is far more successful at easing us into the story than Piper is at easing into prison life. She stumbles through her first day on the inside, making the unwise choice to insult the prison food, right in front of Red Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew), an inmate who just so happens to run the kitchen. Piper's punishment for that verbal infraction is losing all access to food, and that's just one of the challenges she must overcome. Being resourceful is as important as thinking before speaking. These are lessons Piper's learning the hard way. Being polite may have gotten her far on the outside, but she's going to need to pay attention if she wants to survive this year.
Understanding who Piper was before she entered prison seems like a crucial piece to this story, as the series appears to be poised to tell a tale of self-discovery for a woman who goes into prison as one person and may come out of it drastically changed. For us to appreciate the changes that may be in store for Piper, we need to get to know her as she was in the "before." The first episode hints that we'll have opportunities to learn Piper's history, as it uses flashbacks to show us the relevant pieces to this puzzle leading up to her sentencing and surrender. The second episode uses a similar format as a starving Piper attempts to deal with her food dilemma, only instead of flashing back through Piper's life, the episode takes us through some key moments in Red's history, cluing us into her background as Piper tries to get back into the woman's good graces so she can eat. The flashbacks not only take us out of the prison and remind us of the world outside - a luxury these prisoners no longer have - but they also add a bit of context to the characters' actions, letting us understand who they were in their own "before prison" days.
Having only seen two episodes, it's too soon to tell if each episode will feature flashbacks from different perspectives, perhaps as Piper crosses paths with different characters. It's also too soon to tell if the format of this series will repeatedly involve Piper making a mistake and then struggling to fix the situation as she tries to acclimate herself to prison life. Both aspects work well in the introduction, but I'd be curious to see how a pattern like that would hold up over time. That aside, the series has a similar blend of comedy and drama to Kohan's last successful series, Weeds, and that combination works well here. Schilling seems to have a good awareness of when to hold back and when to let go with Piper. There are moments when the character's reactions are all in her eyes, and other moments when she lets go and the emotions come out. It's that kind of timing, which Schilling already has down well, that will make this role instead of breaking it. And given how much of this story hinges on Piper, Schilling's strong performance is well worth noting.
Orange has no trouble delving into the drama and giving us an up-close look at Piper's struggle to find her place in a society where she comes in feeling like an outsider, possibly believing that she could never fit in with these women. But the series also manages to find humor in her situation, and that humor does a really nice job of offsetting the drama without scrubbing away all of the show's edge. There's a dark and gritty side to Orange, but the series isn't trying to be at Oz level in its graphic portrayal of prison life. In fact, Orange isn't trying to be like any other series, and that may be one of the show's biggest strengths starting out.
If Netflix is looking to run with the premium cable channels out there in terms of the original content they offer their subscribers, Orange is the New Black is one more step in the right direction. It's funny, dark and a little bit raw, much like some of the series we see on pay cable. Most of all, it's original and it's set up to draw us further and further into the story with each passing episode. Fortunately, Netflix won't make us wait for the second or the third episode, as they'll be debuting all 13 of them at once, and there's already more on the way.
In the way of adult content, expect a fair amount of nudity, adult language and anything else you might expect from a prison-set series, except maybe the mentioned Oz-level grit. Violence is surprisingly at a minimum - at least in the first couple of episodes.
Orange is the New Black debuts Thursday, July 11 at 12:01 a.m. PDT in all territories where Netflix is available (U.S., Canada, the U.K., Ireland, Latin America, Brazil and the Nordics.)