When it was announced that the newest Netflix original series would be a prison-set show from Jenji Kohan, the creator of Showtime’s Weeds, initial reaction was tempered by fans weary of the previous shows’ increasingly ludicrous story lines as it neared the end of its eight season run. However, by the time Orange is The New Black had premiered on Netflix on July 11, 2013 (dropping all 13 episodes at once, as has become Netflix’s custom), an incredible amount of positive buzz had already spread, indicating it could be the company’s most well-received and popular original series to date, and now, almost two months later, with a second season already in production and a legion of rabid fans, the show has become a must-see for every Netflix subscriber.
The appeal of the series owes credit to two distinctive aspects: the writing and the acting. these two crucial halves come together to form an extraordinary whole that plays as both wholly original and entirely familiar. However, rather than tread ground already masterfully covered in a prison-set series like HBO’s Oz or Fox’s Prison Break, Kohan and her small staff of writers focused their efforts on giving OITNB a lighter tone, which is partly inspired by the memoir of the same name on which the show is based, written by Piper Kerman, detailing her personal experience in a woman’s prison. Kohan and staff channel the book’s humorous and often self-deprecating style by infusing each of their characters with unique personality traits and rich, often mysterious, back stories unveiled to the viewer in small pieces as the season unfolds.
All that nuanced writing is just words on a page without the right actors to bring it to life, and once again Kohan, Netflix and casting director Jennifer Euston have lucked out. The principal cast is lead by Taylor Schilling, as Piper Chapman, sent to prison for carrying drug money for her former girlfriend, portrayed by That 70’s Show star Laura Prepon. Providing comic relief in his earliest appearances, Jason Biggs (American Pie) as Piper’s fiance – a struggling writer, heartbreakingly supportive of Piper and confident their relationship can survive her prison time – turns in a surprisingly emotional performance in the latter half of the series, enough so that for a brief moment the viewer entirely forgets Biggs once had to pretend to hump a pie for a paycheck (Hollywood!). Kate Mulgrew, best known amongst the Nerdist offices as Captain Kathryn Janeway of the starship Voyager, rounds out the main cast, almost unrecognizable as “Red” Reznikov, a Russian bulldog of a woman who runs the prison’s kitchen with an iron fist, yet serves as a mother figure to the women who work in her kitchen.
Talented leads and a stellar writing staff is all most shows need to succeed, but OITNB takes it a step further by surprising viewers with the richest, most culturally diverse female supporting cast in recent memory (possibly ever? When was the last time a TV show had this many well-written, three dimensional female characters?). Taryn Manning, a normally beautiful young actress, is hard to watch as meth addict Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett, while relative newcomer Yael Stone, an Australian born actress, plays Lorna, forever planning her future wedding in a nasally, flawless Bostonian accent. Transgender Sophia Burset is played by Laverne Cox, a transgender woman herself, who manages to channel years of personal experience into the role, bringing a disturbing authenticity to her already emotionally-charged scenes. You’ll recognize the voice of another character, Yoga Jones, the persistently kind hippie, played by Constance Shulman, better know to ’90s kids as the voice of Bluffington’s own Patti Mayonnaise on Doug. Another character already popular amongst fans of the show is Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson, brought loudly to life by actress Danielle Brooks, who infuses the character with an infectious amount of positive energy, lighting up the screen each time she appears.
That said, one character in particular seems to have captured the imagination of the OITNB fan base, with fans managing to get lines of dialogue to trend on Twitter (#Chocolateandvanillaswirl and #bitchesgotstolearn), and even a fan-made supercut of all her best scenes (spoilers): Uzo Aduba’s character Crazy Eyes is the clear breakout character of the series, and rightfully so, as she proves within moments of her introduction to be a completely original and, ultimately, thoroughly likable character whose personal story becomes more intriguing with every sliver of back story that’s unveiled throughout the season. The prison (and by extension the series) never becomes the dark and depressing place usually portrayed in other prison-based fiction, due in large part to the characterization of the prison staff. TV veteran Michael Harney and Pablo Schreiber (brother of Liev) portray correctional officers on the show with a uniquely light tone to their performances. Harney’s Sam Healy comes off as a likeable if not bizarrely passive aggressive man with an odd dislike for lesbians and a Ukrainian immigrant wife still two years shy of her green card, while Schreiber’s George “Pornstache” Mendez is as infuriatingly sleazy as he is hilariously named.
While the show doesn’t build itself out of impossible-to-solve mysteries (yes, Lost, we’re talking about you), it’s best to go in with as little information as possible. The basic premise, as mentioned above, follows Piper Chapman as she enters into a 13 month sentence in a women’s correctional facility, chronicling her adjustment into the prison system and the effect her absence has on both her fiancee and her parents. The show breaks up the present day action with non-sequential flashbacks detailing a particular character’s past, usually with a thematic relation to present-day events. Each episode ends with a solid enough cliffhanger to make it nearly impossible to watch only one, ensuring you’ll spend a good many hours of your Labor Day weekend with the ladies of Litchfield Federal Correctional Facility.