Friday, July 26, 2013

Orange is the New Black: Not Your Father’s Prison Series

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on July 26, 2013. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Vicky Jeudy, Taylor Schilling (centre) and Dascha Polanco on Netflix's Orange is the New Black

July has been a good month for Netflix. On July 18th, the online streaming service made television history when it received its first ever Emmy nominations, nine for the Kevin Spacey dark political drama House of Cards (including Most Outstanding Drama) and three for its much anticipated reboot of Arrested Development. Much e-Ink has been spilled in recent months on the minor televisual revolution that Netflix has sparked with its recent spate of original programming, but both nominated shows launched with a built-in audience, boasting the Hollywood heft of Spacey and Arrested Development’s longstanding cult following respectively. But with the premiere of Jenji Kohan’s new prison comedy-drama Orange is the New Black, Netflix enters a new era, with a series that seems to have earned its critical (and popular) acclaim entirely on its own terms. Two weeks before its premiere on July 11th, Netflix renewed the series for a second season. With only a few familiar faces, strong writing, and an innovative narrative, Orange is the New Black is simply great television however it comes to our screens.

Adapted by Kohan (the creator of Showtime’s Weeds) from Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison (Spiegel & Grau, 2010), the New York Times bestselling memoir by Piper Kerman, the series is set in the fictional Litchfield Prison, a women’s minimum security federal penitentiary. Taylor Schilling (from NBC’s short-lived medical drama Mercy) stars as Piper Chapman, who finds herself sentenced to 15 months in prison for crimes she committed 10 years earlier. Piper (or Chapman, as she becomes known as in Litchfield) is joined in prison by a remarkable array of female characters, meaty roles for actresses of all ages and backgrounds. The range of female and minority characters alone would single the series out, but there is little that is gimmicky or derivative about the show.