Since Netflix began producing television series under the Netflix Original Series tag, the company has entered into direct competition with other premium networks, producing interesting, yet not always good television. The best Netflix Original series, House of Cards, is often great but mechanically so, never feels groundbreaking despite its greatness. Other Netflix Originals, such as Hemlock Grove, are abysmal but encouragingly experimental. Netflix has made it clear that it will foster quality programming that is offbeat or even campy, which is pretty exciting. Since this aspect of the Netflix service began, it has felt inevitable that a truly excellent show would come to Netflix.
With the latest Netflix Original Series, Orange is the New Black, Netflix has burst through the potentials of other Netflix Originals to produce a legitimate, wholly engaging product, and one of the best shows of the year. Based on the memoir Orange is the New Black written by Piper Kerman, the show documents the life of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a woman who once carried drug money for her ex-girlfriend, and is caught ten years later (two years before the case reaches its statute of limitations). Faced with minimum drug sentences, Piper pleas guilty and self-surrenders to a federal institution named Litchfield. The series focuses on her day-to-day life in prison.
Developed by Weeds creator Jenji Kohan, it becomes immediately clear that the dry tone of Weeds has been transferred to Orange is the New Black, but is tempered in a more consistent and human way that renders much of the humor bittersweet. Orange is the New Black feels significantly more human than Weeds and is all the better for it.
The first episode of the series, “I Wasn’t Ready”, focuses entirely on Piper’s final days of freedom and her first days of imprisonment, and serves as a set-up of expectation versus reality, which is handled deftly. Using a loose linearity, Orange is the New Black relies heavily upon flashbacks and other temporal devices, with “I Wasn’t Ready” even beginning in media res on Piper’s first day in prison. The result is a revealing destruction of the dichotomy of Piper’s expectations and the reality of her prison life. In most of the flashback scenes Piper is vain, concerned with her looks and other irrelevant matters, all of which are rendered even more meaningless once she enters Litchfield. Orange is the New Black constantly devalues what Piper expects, creating a whirlwind-like episode that introduces characters at a speedy clip, never dwelling on them. This episode is perfectly paced, intended to provide a realistically blurry view of Piper’s new home, which opens up slowly as she adapts to her life in it.
The first half of the episode is largely focused on Piper’s preparation for prison, having a dinner with her friends Polly ( Maria Dizzia) and Pete (Nick Stevenson), and her fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs). This half of the episode is successful because of the excellent chemistry between Biggs and Schilling, who play Piper and Larry as a loving, yet sarcastic couple. Biggs does a particularly excellent job of establishing Larry as the ideal match for Piper as she is now: a man who is accommodating and understanding, but also appropriately sarcastic with Piper. The relationship is believable and bittersweet, particularly in the scene after their dinner with Polly and Pete in which a teary-eyed Piper asks for Larry to make love to her, despite how fearful she is of going to prison the next morning. This sexuality is tempered with a deep, earned sadness, as the reality of Piper’s situation clearly weighs on her.
This loving, healthy relationship is juxtaposed with flashbacks of Piper’s relationship with her ex-girlfriend, Alex Vause (Laura Prepon). The love between Piper and Alex is clearly genuine, and Orange is the New Black handles their sexuality fluidly, revealing a difficulty in classifying Piper as a lesbian or not, emphasized by a flashback to her family learning of her relationship with Alex and their past crimes. It is believable that a 22 year old Piper would commit a crime for Alex, and despite her anxieties, she successfully does so. Orange is the New Black clearly establishes both of Piper’s past major relationships as genuine, something complicated by the appearance of Alex in Litchgate at the end of “I Wasn’t Ready”. This is some fine table-setting, allowing us to meet Piper and Alex in their happiest moments before we see them both at their lowest, which works despite the clunky final shot of the episode, which is likely the only real fault of the episode. It is a cartoonish moment that betrays the heavier tone established by the rest of the episode.
When Piper first arrives in prison though, the bittersweet tone is put into full gear, as she is introduced to guards and prisoners, many of whom are indifferent to her outside life and her expectations of prison life itself. This episode shows figures who are sympathetic and accommodating, but also those who are menacing and powerful. These are people who Piper will need to build relationships with in order to survive, and their apathy towards her is discouraging. Litchfield is a place where people only spend time with each other because they have to.
This revelation is surprising though, when the prison is shown to have a status quo, leadership, and tribal system divided by race. These tribes are all close-knit, and little interplay occurs between them aside from basic discussion. The establishment of a prison-wide status quo, shown in several instances (for example, the bed-making discussion and Piper’s fears of being the odd one out in her sleeping habits), leads to a vital lesson for Piper, as she mistakenly criticizes the prison’s food in front of the prison’s Kitchen Manager Red (Kate Mulgrew), who is a matriarchal figure and a powerful influence within the prison’s walls. Piper immediately finds herself isolated and overwhelmed by this conflict, stressed further by the kitchen serving her a used tampon for lunch instead of Red’s food.
Overall, “I Wasn’t Ready” is highly effective, hinting at a complex social system that is daunting, yet strangely inviting. Featuring characters who are instantly likeable and memorable, while treating the immediate subversion of Piper’s expectations with elaborate and quick pacing, Orange is the New Black’s first episode is a masterful beginning to a complex, beautiful series. The establishment of a racially-based tribal system is comically established, and the show has a sexuality that is rare and important, honestly portraying same-sex relationships both in and out of Litchfield. It is the perfect start, supported by brisk pacing and excellent cast chemistry.