Orange Is the New Black S01E01: "Pilot"

Note: I will be writing up thoughts on Orange Is the New Black two episodes at a time on a weekly basis, but this first review will only cover the pilot. Look for a joint review of Episodes 2 and 3 next Wednesday, July 17


When Orange Is the New Black was announced as one of four new shows in Netflix's inaugural push into original programming, it slipped on the drool pouring from the mouths of Arrested Development fans and tripped over the red carpet laid out for the A-list-studded House of Cards. It became an afterthought, the player in the "player to be named later" metaphor. But those two anticipated series mostly fizzled; House of Cards earned mixed-to-positive reviews but fell short of lofty expectationsArrested Development kinda stunk early on and only sort of came together in the end, and Hemlock Grove was a 10-episode disaster of puking, blood-sex, and living nightmares. They left Netflix with a whole lotta hype about its all-you-can-eat distribution model but not much that went down easy. Well, we've let Netflix serve us mediocre appetizers, salads, and entrees, but let me tell you, the Orange dessert is awfully tasty. 

Based on Piper Kerman's memoir Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison and adapted for television by Weeds creator Jenji Kohan, the series takes a premise fit for porno (women's prison!) and adds a strong sense of humanity and wit shepherded by Kohan's strong voice. Taylor Schilling (Argo) plays Piper, a somewhat-spoiled-but-far-from-an-heiress blonde lady who gets locked up for a drug-money crime she committed 10 years ago (this setup is so Jenji, isn't it?).

It sounds like an awful exposé of the atrocities of incarceration, but the pilot episode played a little trick on viewers giving Piper a relatively smooth introduction to prison. Thinking some handbook about prison she read would give her a heads-up on the inner workings of life behind bars, Piper strode into her 15-month sentence with confidence. And aside from a few hiccups early on, things looked as if they'd be merely uncomfortable, but nothing that MacGyvering some shower shoes out of maxipads couldn't fix. However, the prison nightmare everyone expected eventually arrived—specifically after Piper told kitchen queen Red (a greasy Kate Mulgrew) that the food in prison sucked—and watching everything collapse around Piper in a matter of minutes was the kind of black comedy we'd been waiting for. If you weren't giddily laughing when Piper's lesbian ex Alex (Laura Prepon) showed her face in the closing scene, this probably isn't the series for you. 

The first episode mostly indicated that prison isn't going to be entirely awful for Piper, but the end of revealed that life in the slammer is going to be pretty terrible at times, too. And that's important to cement early on, because Piper herself is a character who I want to see both succeed and fail. In flashbacks (which are used remarkably well), we saw a normal woman doing stupid, regrettable things many people will be able to relate to, like getting involved in a steamy post-college lesbian relationship with a drug dealer (feel free to substitute your own appropriate bad decision). But we also saw a woman who was tearfully moved when her shlubby boyfriend (Jason Biggs) proposed to her before she shipped out to the clink, and a woman who doesn't deserve to be in jail in the first place. It's that back-and-forth of fortune and misfortune in flashbacks that established Piper as a sympathetic character, and Schilling bounced between the two in a believable way that really worked. 

In present prison-time, however, it's a different story. Piper is completely unlike her fellow inmates in that she's a woman of relative privilege. It's good to see her prissy ass get cut down to size and her socioeconomic status flipped over. Don't get me wrong, I don't want to see Piper shanked in the shower or anything. But even though I do want her to make it because her flashbacks wrung some sympathy out of me, I don't want her to have an easy time of it, because it seems like everyone else in the prison has had it a lot worse. We want her to learn all the hard lessons that accompany coming face-to-face with the other side of life. Earn it, girl! 

It would have been easy enough to make Orange Is the New Black a tale of "Hey yo, look at this dumb white girl in prison!" Thankfully, this worldis rich with awesome three-dimensional inmates who aren't just faceless goons looking to make Piper's life hell. There's an incredible, palpable camaraderie that's immediate, and it stems from making the locked-up ladies... nice? If these women weren't hardened criminals, even I might want to hang out with them. They may be a little rough around the edges, but they clearly have their own stories to tell. And they won't be sad-sack woe-is-me stories, they'll be human stories of success and failure. If all goes well, Piper won't be the only one who sees this world in a different way; we will, too. Awww, doesn't that sound nice? 

All's good with Orange in the Black early on, and it's the only Netflix show that's made me want to start up the next episode immediately.


NOTES

– So... I did NOT expect to see Alex at the end of the episode. Was that a hallucination, or is she actually there?

– Pablo Schreiber from The Wire plays one of the prison guards who was trying to take Piper's ID photo, and he's hilarious with that giant mustache. 

– There are lots of great supporting characters already, but early on I'm favoring Rosemarie (the prisoner who drove the van) and Nicky (the frizzy-haired lesbian). 

– If you'd like to watch along with me, I'll be reviewing two episodes at a time, and posting the writeups on Wednesdays.

Previously Aired Episode

AIRED ON 6/6/2014

Season 2 : Episode 13

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