I’ve been willfully chained to my television for the past week, tearing through episodes of Jenji Kohan’s latest, “Orange Is The New Black” — and I highly recommend you do the same. For the uninitiated, this is the story of Piper Chapman, a bougie, well-meaning white lady who is plopped into a minimum security prison for a year to serve time for a brief incident as a mule for her drug-trafficking ex-girlfriend. I was reluctant at first to watch this show, my mind clouded with the memory of the last few seasons of “Weeds,” but after some urging from a trusted friend, I settled in and was instantly hooked. Here’s why.
1. The casting into this show is stellar. Newcomer Taylor Schilling, best known for starring opposite Zac Efron in a schmaltzy Nicholas Sparks adaptation, portrays the insufferable, wide-eyed Piper Schilling perfectly. Piper is that girl who helps you find the whole milk at the grocery store while singing the praises of rice milk. Piper is the girl on the subway who won’t shut up about juicing. Seeing Piper in prison felt good. Let’s see you juice your way out of this one, kid. Also, watching the ensemble is like attending some sort of reunion for fallen stars from the early-2000s. Laura Prepon as Piper’s tattooed, deadpan ex-girlfriend Alex is brilliant. Natasha Lyonne shines as a rich girl turned wild-eyed, hardened ex-junkie. Jason Biggs fulfills his destiny as America’s favorite nice Jewish boy in his turn as Larry, Piper’s earnest fiance. Other star turns from Lea de Laria and the woman behind the voice of Patty Mayonnaise make watching each episode a tiny quest to discover who else you might recognize.
2. It passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. First, a primer: a work of fiction passes the Bechdel test if it features two or more women talking to each other about something other than a man. Fantastic news — “Orange” is a series that attempts to showcase the entire spectrum of female relationships from intimate to contentious, with the strongest female cast in recent memory. Not only is there a giant spectrum of women represented, the relationships between them are beautifully drawn out. Because the playing field is leveled completely, aside from a subplot involving a female inmate and a male corrections officer, these women are given the ability as actors to really spread their wings — by putting these interactions in the context of a female-only space, the issues they’re having aren’t “women’s issues,” they are just issues. Plan and simple.
3. It tackles race and class in a way that is mostly comfortable. Piper naturally stands out in her new world as a college-educated, well-heeled, fancy white lady, and Kohan makes no bones about emphasizing this difference for as long as necessary. Piper Chapman is the cultural sister to Mary Louise Parker’s portrayal of over-caffeinated, doe-eyed Nancy Botwin, the fancy white lady who had to start selling weed to survive. The races on the show seem to self-segregate and integrate when necessary, just like life. In fact, the only issue I have with the race relations in this show is just how carefully it’s handled. It strives so hard not to be a cliche that it occasionally toes the line.
4. It is compelling, soapy TV with a heart. With “Orange,” we have the same kind of addictive, need to know quality that was present in the early episodes of “Weeds.” One of Kohan’s strengths seems to be drawing out the nuances of women in uncomfortable, unfamiliar situations and the things that happen to all the women are alternately humorous and horrifying. The great fuel in this show’s fire is Piper’s constant readjustments to how she is perceived in prison. The development of other stories surrounding the lives of all the women also seems to be carefully calculated. Story lines are allowed to develop naturally and when an episode ends, you are compelled to start the next one instantly, because it’s that good.
5. The ensemble cast outshines the main character, and that is a rarity. There is such a wealth of talent on this show that Piper’s foibles started to take a backseat to me. Each character is so well-developed, and the brief backstories, told through flashbacks, of a select number of inmates, contained enough plot for a wealth of spin-offs. I’d happily watch a season about Sophia (Laverne Cox), the transgendered former fireman locked up for credit card fraud played by transgender columnist Laverne Cox, or Pennsatucky, the would-be faith healer and follower of the Lord, played to the hilt by Taryn Manning.
6. Female sexuality is handled gracefully. Any story about a women’s prison is replete with lesbian jokes and the quiet assumption that everyone “goes gay” in prison, because that’s what the movies say. ”Orange” handles the sexuality issue frankly. It’s clear that there are women who are lesbians, women who are bisexual, women who just miss the touch of another human being, and anything in between. If you’ve seen “Weeds,” you know that Jenji Kohan loves a good sex scene, and there is plenty of sex in this show to go around — but it’s not sleazy.