Much like Netflix’s earlier bout of original programming House Of Cards — 13 episodes of some of the most compelling and entertaining scripted television out there — Boots and I struggled mightily to keep from binge-watching their latest offering Orange Is The New Black. The buzz on the women-in-prison drama was really strong, to the point where I had to see what all the fuss was about. Boy-o-boyardee was I glad we did. Based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, series creator Jenji Kohan, an amazing staff of writers, and one most ridiculously talented cast have come up what is easily one of the best new shows since… well, since House Of Cards, really. Above the obvious platitudes — great writing, great acting, great direction/editing/etc., it’s almost hard to pinpoint exactly why… or perhaps, which elements of show really shine the most above all others. The performances are, across the board, routinely strong and compelling. It’s hard to have a “favorite” character when the pool of candidates includes Kate Mulgrew’s “Red”, Pablo Schreiber’s almost over-the-top (but reeled in just enough) “Pornstache” Mendez, Natasha Lyonne’s cool, collected, and knowing “Nicky”, Uzo Aduba’s initially scary, then freaky, then utterly sympathetic turn as “Crazy Eyes”, Laverne Cox’s warm and engaging turn as “Sophia”, or any of a dozen other smaller but memorable parts.
If I had to single anyone out, it would first be Taylor Schilling in the central role of “Piper”. She’s at the heart of the story, and if she seems shrill, capricious, and overbearing at first, it pays off throughout the 13 episodes in spades. She is slowly unpeeled like an onion until we really start to understand who she is and how she got there. Schilling delivers every facet of her character with nuance; even the over-the-top moments.
Laura Prepon’s “Alex” is a revelation. She initially seems to be little more than a foil, an outlet for Piper’s wrath, someone to “rail against” at first… until we see her story unwind as well. Prepon sells it all: the strength, the vulnerability, the need and the rage. And as a totally unrelated and probably unnecessary comment, she looks redonkulously hot in black hair, glasses, and tattoos. Donna Pinciotti meets Wednesday Addams? Something like that. Nice.
I would have to say my favorite character, the one I find most compelling to the point that when she’s on-screen I am completely captivated, is Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett (played by Taryn Manning). A beast of a little spitfire, she’s a former meth addict and convicted murderer who preaches her particular brand of holy gospel behind bars. Sort of frightening and more than a little evil, it’s the type of role that in a lesser actress could have devolved into little more than caricature, but Manning delivers a knockout performance. You buy it because it feels real. Terribly, awfully real. And strangely enough, I found myself liking her because, no matter what batshit theories or ideas popped into her head, you could see a real fire in her eyes. No matter what horrible things she put into motion, and how much you despised her as a result, you still dug the strength of her convictions.
There is a large ensemble cast here, and they all do great work. The delivery of the narrative is also notable. The storytelling is often non-linear; it’s not just 13 episodes set in a prison. There are numerous flashbacks of many character, hearkening back before their time in the clink. We discover where they came from and how they became convicted felons. Through this we are not just being taken on their journey as prisoners, but also given exposure to their deeper story arcs. Some work more effectively than others, but it gives the series a sense of dimension and richness of character. You could go off on a tangent and follow any one of them on their own for another 13 episodes, outside of the main series storyline.
So bla bla bla, it’s a great show, everyone’s talking about it, go watch it. Netflix original programming is knocking it out of the park, as far as I’m concerned. Here’s the video: