orange is the new black - season 1


Creator: Jenji Kohan (from the novel by Piper Kerman)

This show is so addictive it is so not freaking funny. You just can’t beat prison shows for their diverse range of characters, including sexy heroines with fatal flaws. We saw it in Bad Girls and revelled in it there, but Orange Is the New Black is an entirely different beast so the comparisons should stop right there. This show is flat out funny, moving, compelling and authentic, with the kind of twisted black humour in the face of life's horrors that made shows likeSix Feet Under and Weeds addictive viewing.

I was not hooked from the beginning. I’d say the first three episodes, with its complex exposition and waaaay too much of that dude famous for screwing a pie, are enough to turn off many but the most persistent. It is still funny, and the exposition is necessary for us to get to know Piper, but it does take a while to find it's feet (the rewind-over-and-over shower scene in the first minute nonwithstanding).

Don’t get me wrong, there are some classic moments in the build up (see above re: shower scene), but I’m just saying, if you are struggling to see what all the fuss is about, stick with it at least until episode 4. If you’re not hooked after that, then this show just may not be for you, but for me that’s where this show really kicks up a gear.

The story is this: Piper Chapman (the hilarious Taylor Schilling) is an entitled, spoiled white girl with a rebellious streak who is sentenced to 15 months for a youthful indiscretion. In her early twenties she fell in love with Alex Vause (Laura Prepon from That 70’s Show), and followed her around the world, despite knowing that Alex was part of an international drug cartel. She carried a suitcase of money one time, which was enough to get her named ten years later after her relationship with Alex is ancient history and the drug ring falls apart.

Piper’s fiance Larry (pie-boy Jason Biggs), while taken aback at first, is incredibly supportive. So Piper goes scared shitless off to prison, and starts her journey into hell. To her surprise (but not ours), Piper’s old flame Alex is doing time too, and Piper is caught between her outside life and her inside needs. (Which, in a shallow aside, answers the question of whether or not Laura Prepon would look good wearing a sack. Just sayin')

It takes Piper a long time to discover that this journey is meant to teach her to have the courage to be who she really is. In the meantime she's a one-woman freakshow. It is borderline psychotic how many time she sticks her foot in it. But no matter how crazy the other inmates are, no matter how many moments of pure hilarity and shocking violence, the show never loses its focus on Piper. Schilling carries a huge load here, more than usual for an ensemble show, and she's brilliant.

What I really loved about Schilling's performance is that in between disasters Piper shows real grit and an underlying stubbornness to fail, as if to remind us every time we start to lose faith in her that she's worth cheering for after all. If only she'd wake up and realise that Alex is the only person on earth who sees her for exactly who she is and loves her anyway. Oh well, I'm sure we have a few seasons left for her to figure that out.

The supporting cast is magical. Led by Captain Janeway herself Kate Mulgrew as queen-bee Red (seriously, even as a Russian criminal mastermind she oozes class), Natasha Lyonne (fellow American Pie alumni and the gayest straight girl in movies), comedienne Lea DeLaria, transexual activist Laverne Cox, an almost-unrecognisable Taryn Manning (Sons of Anarchy)... they are all great.

That this show comes from the Netflix stable is irrelevant – showrunner Jenji Kohan (the woman behind Weeds) has brought to life something every bit as good as anything Showtime or HBO have ever dreamed up. One of the brilliant decisions Kohan makes is to allow us to escape from prison sometimes into the backstories of the individual inmates. They know they have an amazing cast, and they give them moments to shine.

But let’s face it, this is the Piper and Alex show. The chemistry is palpable, the sex scenes hot, and the visceral reaction Piper and Alex have to each other that both repels and attracts is enormously fun. Laura Prepon is a revelation. I was doubtful at first, I don’t think I would have guessed at her range by her previous material, but she fits into Alex’s skin perfectly.

If this is the future of television, I'm really on board. Everything is released at once to cater for binge viewers (like me), but you could still eke it out bit by bit to prolong the fun. I’m so excited that we have reached that point where content providers like Netflix can make money out of beautiful, edgy, script-driven material like this.

Orange Is the New Black has (thankfully!) already been renewed for season 2, but we'll have to wait until 2014 to find out how the shocking events in the finale turn out. Legions of lesbian fans all over the world are already heading for message boards and making YouTube clips. This is a phenomenon in the making. The annual release date of the new Orange is the New Black series is going to take on a legendary status. Mark your calendars, invite all your friends, I know for sure I'm having a season 2 binge-fest at my house this time next year. Bring it on.

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Laura Prepon
Taylor Schilling
New Black

Last updated: 3 Aug 2013