Orange is the New Black

2013-10-07_2357Who doesn’t love a good prison series?

They lend themselves so well to episodic television: high emotions, larger-than-life characters, jeopardy, sudden arrivals and exits of characters plus all kinds of power games. Prisoner, Oz, Wentworth, Bad Girls, and Prison Break have all been popular hits.

The latest is Orange is the New Black by Jenji Kohan (Weeds).

The title pertains to the colour of the prison uniforms worn by new inmates. In the first episode of this US drama it’s Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) sporting the new attire, and effectively becoming the audience’s eyes into a women’s federal prison in Litchfield, New York.

She seems like the perfect wife to Larry (Jason Biggs), attractive, intelligent, confident. So it’s perplexing to see her voluntarily checking into the prison. What could she have possibly done?

Suffice to say she has no experience behind bars and her stint isn’t likely to be a short one. On the inside everyone is referred to by surname. The shower floors are riddled with germs. There’s same-sex acts behind closed doors. Racial tension and violence simmer. And trust is a commodity easily exchanged.

But Chapman’s biggest mistake comes in a passing comment in the dining room when she criticises the prison food. It turns out one of her fellow prisoners, Red (Kate Mulgrew), is also the head cook and she’s not happy.

Red gets her revenge by serving up the most unsavoury of meals to Chapman before instructing her team not to give her any more food. Everyone knows Chapman is being quietly starved, and complies with the decree.

The episode also features various flashbacks that show us more of Chapman’s life with Larry, including how she came to break the law. These scenes aren’t as engaging as those in the prison, but they do inform us more on her character.

It’s a device that will be used in subsequent episodes, with the second ep showing us how Red’s life married to a shady Russian businessman led to her incarceration. Wentworth similarly used flashbacks to show the back-history of its key characters.

Schilling, best known for the short-lived medical series Mercy, is excellent as Piper Chapman. She is well-cast as a sympathetic character, the prison newbie who is going to tough it in harsh circumstances.

I found it hard to believe Kate Mulgrew as the Red Russian with a feigned accent, having seen her work in so many other US shows, including Star Trek: Voyager. She’s just one of the kooky misfits in this drama, comprised by a strong ensemble cast including Australian actress Yael Stone (Lorna Morello). In this mad-house where the staff are as unhinged as the inmates, Chapman emerges as the most adjusted character of all.

But while Orange certainly grabs from the get-go, I’m yet to see a prison series match the realism and confronting nature of HBOS’ excellent Oz. Orange is the New Black sits roughly on the same page as Wentworth in terms of how far it is prepared to go in its adult content. It’s a tough customer, but is selective about the punch of its language, violence and nudity (I don’t recall any), with a lighter, offbeat side to its storytelling.

However, Kohan’s previous work with Weeds demonstrated her ability to juggle bittersweet stories and there’s every indication of a dark, resonant edge to her latest offering that makes this ultimately worthwhile.

Orange is the New Black airs 8:30pm Wednesday on Showcase.


  1. It took me about 4 episodes to get into Orange Is The New Black, after that I fully enjoyed and have seen it to the end (rewatched the first couple again after and enjoyed them more).

    As for the comparison to OZ, I would say OITNB is to OZ what Weeds was to Breaking Bad.

    In Weeds Nancy a suburban Wife needing a way to make money to look after her family after her Husband dies starts dealing Dope and falls into a world she never imagined (and enjoys it). Breaking Bad a Suburban Teacher needing a way to pay for his Cancer treatment and to look after his family falls into cooking Meth and dealing n a world he never imagined (and enjoys it). Both stories though similar took a different path and Weeds a lighter approach to it than Breaking Bad, so the same can be said for OITNB compared to OZ.

  2. I’ve seen the first ep but am still undecided if I liked it I’m going to give it a second chance and watch the second.

    “nudity (I don’t recall any)” pretty sure there was nudity in the first ep shower scene.

  3. Comedy drama is how it is usually described.

    Oz was neither a popular hit or realistic. Most people don’t know it was HBO’s first drama, they think it was The Sopranos. And it was set in a contrived open maximum security experimental ward.

    Was interesting and critical acclaimed though.

  4. David – I think knowing that it is based on a true story and Piper Kerman’s real life experiences is important to the story of this show.

    Piper did turn herself in and the reason and what she did is exactly the same, there are variants like I said (one of which I won’t say to avoid spoilers). However for the most part this is a realistic portrayal of what the author Piper Kerman experienced in Prison.

    Where as Oz was close to real to those Hard Prisons like we see in the factual shows, this is real to a medium security Prison (based on one persons experience).

  5. I’ve watched the series on Netflix and it is both comedy and drama, the humour is much in the vein of Weeds given the Jenji Kohan connection and the pace picks up as the series goes along.

    The show is based on the book My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman, though it adds more dramatic elements to the show. Like for one in the book the inmates were extremely welcoming compared to in the series, including the scene with Red (Pop in the book) with her actions toward Piper being far less harsh.

    So the actual true story is less dramatic in it’s telling than the series, there is no way anything will ever compare to Oz. Oz is Oz, however from the standpoint of the book this series is close to realism, in the way that Piper feels intimidated in some instances.

  6. Love, love Love this show! Watched the first 8 episodes. Each episode features the back-story of 1 character (as well as the ongoing current stories with the other characters). There are probably too many characters if anything and many of the backstories in the first few episodes are not of the central characters – I’m not sure why they do this. Crazy-Eyes freaks me out.

    I think Red is good not having seen her or her accent in anything else. I’m looking forward to seeing the back-stories of the yoga instructor, Crazy-Eyes and Miler.

    Matt McGorry is such a babe!

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