Orange is the New Black: Season One (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD) – Netflix followed up the acclaim of House of Cards with this original series, a different kind of prison drama based on the memoir by Piper Kerman and developed by Jenji Kohan, the creator of Showtime’s Weeds. Taylor Schilling stars as a middle-class entrepreneur sent to prison for an old smuggling charge that goes back to her young and reckless days when she dated a drug smuggler (Laura Prepon), who it turns out is also serving time in her facility.
We’re not talking supermax here, and there’s nothing out of Oz or a seventies women-in-prison picture here. This is a mix of social drama and social satire, with a low key humor running under the very real sense of threat hanging over the entire situation. Schilling’s Piper Chapman comes from affluence, a college education and a young adulthood that allowed her the freedom to travel around the world and rebel against everything her parents stood for without worrying about little things like making a living. She’s since gotten that out of her system and is getting ready to marry (to Jason Biggs) and start her business when her past catches up with her and turns herself in to serve a year in women’s prison where she meets women who have been looking after themselves any way they can all their lives. It takes a few weeks to get her expectations adjusted and her missteps and unguarded comments have a habit of getting her into trouble.
What makes this so good is the rich cast of diverse characters who bring with them experiences not usually seen on the screen. The fact is, the prison population is racially mixed and dominated by poor and working class women who got caught up in crime out of desperation, not some youthful lark. There are some angry women in here, a few unbalanced and unpredictable as well. I much prefer this to Kohan’s “Weeds,” which played criminality for laughs and made light of the violence inherent in her world. The humor is more barbed and troubling here, the characters have the weight of lives behind them, and while it favors Piper’s experience, the show is at its best an ensemble piece and every character gets to tell her story along the way. Uzo Aduba’s “Crazy Eyes” stands out as a fan favorite, a truly unpredictable character who seems to enjoy letting people think she’s crazier than she is, and Kate Mulgew, Natasha Lyonne, Danielle Brooks, Taryn Manning, and Michelle Hurst are among the fellow inmates.
Netflix doesn’t share its viewership numbers but all indications suggest that Orange is the New Black is actually watched by more subscribers than their marquee series House of Cards. It certainly offers a much more diverse cast and a less rarified culture on the screen. You won’t mistake this for a social realist drama, but the microcosm of this community offers characters and experiences we can relate to more easily than the Cards culture of power brokers and political players.
13 episodes on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital formats. The disc editions include producer commentary on two episodes and four featurettes. The second season debuts on Netflix on June 6, with entire season available at once.