Orange is the New Black

I almost didn’t give Orange is the New Black a chance, based simply on hating the title. It suggested to me that we’d be watching “Elle Woods Goes to the Big House.” I envisioned a main character who would apply for dispensation to wear Manolos with her jumpsuit, or teach her cell mates whatever is the 2013 equivalent of the bend-and-snap.

oitnb

A show about a woman going to prison, produced exclusively for Netflix, could as well go the other way: all rape-y and terrifying. Also not something I was eager to embrace.

Somehow, this show–evidenced by the pilot–pulls off a delicate balance of realism, drama and humor. I was surprised at how much I laughed. More amazing, it actually made me, an average middle-class white woman look at the central character, Piper (Taylor Schilling), and think, “That could be me.” If, somehow, I had done something in my past that came back to bite me in the ass, I would totally go on Amazon and buy books to prepare for prison.

If you’re wondering where you’ve seen Taylor Schilling before, she was in, like, the last 30 seconds of Argo when Ben Affleck goes home. She was also on the show Mercy, which I had completely blocked out even though I blogged about it. It’s bad. As Piper, Schilling has to convince us that she, a Connecticut WASP engaged to a milquetoast writer (Jason Biggs), was once bold enough to enter a lesbian relationship with an international drug smuggler and help her transport dirty money through customs. She also has to come off just sweet and naive enough to be lovable.

The show’s creators could have made her an anti-hero; a Walter White-type who we can watch do horrible things and still keep rooting for. After the pilot I was still afraid they might go that way, which would have been a shame because she’s so tragically funny as she is.

And her poor, besotted fiance! Cheers to Jason Biggs, who is brilliant as the World’s Most Understanding Boyfriend. He, too, has a tough act to pull off, convincing the audience that someone would really stay so committed to this relationship. He actually drives her to prison to turn herself in. He’s so supportive, you don’t know whether to punch him or hug him.

Instantly upon arrival, Piper finds herself in a conundrum typical of the bureaucratically-run institution. Her check that she is supposed to be able to use for buying sundries in the canteen won’t clear for two weeks. But the challenges still don’t seem insurmountable until we meet the Big Bad. It turns out Red (Kate Mulgrew), the frightening, Soviet-accented maven of the kitchen, doesn’t like having her cooking insulted. And she controls the food. All the food.

You’re probably aware that Laura Prepon is also part of the cast. Although she’s the reason for Piper landing here, her appearance in the pilot is minimal and it’s not immediately clear how large her role will be… or what it will be.

Another note, I was practically shaking waiting for the other shoe to drop with the too-nice corrections officer Sam Healy. It’s impossible to know who to trust and who not to.

Even though the pilot had plenty of humor and suspense, I was concerned that the story of this one woman’s experience would get boring pretty quickly. I needn’t have worried. Each episode centers on one character, usually depicting how she wound up in prison, and those stories get woven among each other and into Piper’s story into something wholly engaging. So even if the first episode doesn’t quite do it for you, I suggest sticking around.

Here’s the just-released trailer for Season 2:

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