Netflix lead with its trump, and followed with its joker. Political thriller House of Cards served as proof that the Netflix business plan works, and is even preferable to classic TV in most cases. Jenji Kohan’s new creation Orange is the New Black further boosts their reputation as a legitimate source for original programming. The recognizable comedy-drama style Kohan mastered with Weeds is renewed here within the confines of Litchfield federal prison, where our first glimpse inside occurs during a humorous shower exchange between female star Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) and energy explosive wildcard “Taystee” (Danielle Brooks). The crass humor and up front nudity set the stage for a genuinely quirky cast that is slowly unveiled to us over the course of season one.
The characters are defined by their role and status in jail, the static backdrop for the majority of the show, yet back stories are interspersed throughout each episode (in seemingly random patterns). This drummed up some much needed LOST déjà vu for me, the way characters existed in an isolated, inescapable location, all of them mysterious, masked versions of their true selves. The viewer is teased by this dichotomy, where the decision to empathize or antipathize with a character is constantly being challenged by their past and present personas. We see that even the darkest characters, like Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) and Mendez (Pablo Schreiber), engage in sadistic behavior that is often paired with comedic dialogue. The depth of Mendez’s character is a testament to the careful balance of light and dark. Some of his scenes stand alone in their ability to spur laughter during a dehumanizing situation.
Comradery is a core piece of the show, where prisoners are divided along racial lines and stereotypes are interwoven in a refreshingly tasteful manner. The tribal theme also extends into sexuality and religion, which have large roles this season, as well as the prison staff, who turn blind eyes to each other’s wrongdoings. It’s common to see prison guards depicted on television as ruthless human beings who lack any emotional depth. Yet Orange is the New Black gives us a more realistic image of the prison business. There’s management who, just like with any business, struggle to keep things running smoothly. Their staff is expected to detach emotion from all decisions, exposing them to an unhealthy number of moral dilemmas. Sam Healy (Michael J. Harney), one of the prison counselors, is introduced as a caring individual who takes a liking to Piper Chapman. A timid fatherly figure who could perhaps rise above the greed and corruption. But even he is capable of abusing power. We’re left wondering if any of the correction officers can overcome these temptations.
Ultimately, season one left me wanting more. I want to know more about the character backstories. I want to witness them transform throughout the series. The writing is remarkable and their ragtag cast of character actors put on a truly impressive first showing. It would be too hard to narrow down the list of all-stars because so many of them are absolutely nailing their roles. But I can’t help worrying about the long term trajectory. We know from Weeds that Kohan obeys no boundaries when it comes to plot direction, which can easily get out of hand, as we saw in the later seasons of the show. Has she limited herself with the prison vehicle? I won’t try to guess where the show runners go from here, but I think they’ll be challenged to tactfully progress the story beyond Litchfield, if that’s even on the table. The show teeters dangerously on the edge of “sitcom”, and it could find itself on the wrong side of the fence if the formula remains stagnant.