I had the good fortune of hearing Kate Mulgrew speak at the Las Vegas Star Trek Convention last summer. While she was clearly there to speak with fans about her work as the first female captain to headline her own Trek program (STAR TREK: VOYAGER), it was equally obvious that she was all too happy to talk about her experiences as part of the Netflix women’s prison dramedy, ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK. She didn’t go on and on about – though I’ve no doubt she could have – but one of the things she emphasized on several occasions was that the brilliance of the show’s writing was in choosing to focus so much time on so many ‘damaged’ people. (Her words, not mine.) As I hadn’t seen the show (not a big fan of Netflix for personal reasons), my wife and I agreed that once this came out on home video we were definitely going to have to pick up a copy.
I’m glad we did!
I won’t belabor what others have already established clearly about ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK. It’s a great character comedy which happens to be set inside what I believe is a minimum security prison. (I could be wrong on that, but these inmates do seem to have more freedoms and privileges than most of what I’ve seen of OZ.) Stories show that there is a solitary confinement available “down the hill” (at a separate location), and I would suppose the real hard-core offenders spend much of their time in that facility. (Again, could be wrong, just stating it for clarity.)
What ORANGE does uniquely well is it borrows heavily from the storytelling format last used (to great effect) on ABC TV’s LOST. (They are entirely different shows, but they do share this thematic similarity.) Namely, ORANGE presents a growing roster of characters whose backgrounds and kinda/sorta shrouded in a bit of natural mystery – they’re all inmates, after all, meaning they’re behind bars for doing something society has deemed inappropriate – and their separate history are revealed via some delicious ‘flashbacks.’ In some cases, audiences don’t quite know what Inmate A has done; however, their associated flashbacks certainly point us in on some clues. It’s a delight watching as their history grows, and we’re allowed to watch how they behave in the present for even more tips. I suspect – before all is said and done – we’ll know everything about them (it’s not like they’re going anywhere); the real trick is to keep people interested, and I suspect this format will do the trick for quite some time.
As a lead, Taylor Schilling as the unintentionally uptight ‘yuppie’ is wonderful. Her ‘Piper Chapman’ is a true original with just the right amount of ‘clueless blonde’ and ‘girl next door’ charm that you never quite feel sorry for her, not so much as her misdirected ‘good intentions’ make you want to occasional bonk her upside the head. Mulgrew is particularly convincing as the Russian matron who relishes the authority she receives by running the prison kitchen, and the remainder of the cast are equally intelligent and likeable despite the fact that every one of them did something wrong in their past.
My personal advice? Not that anyone on the production staff is reading, but – if you are – then do what you can to deep-six Jason Biggs’ character. For my tastes, he serves no long-term benefit here – he vacillates far too much about what he should do with himself – and I’d rather he get crushed under an Amtrak if that meant giving viewers more screen time for the ladies in orange. Or beige. Or black. Whatever. That’s where the real stories are. That’s where the magic lies.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. My chief problem with ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK is that the writers spend far too much time trying to convince me that everyone – whether incarcerated or not – is as ‘damaged’ as everyone else; the only difference between us and the inmates is that the inmates are the ones who got caught. That’s fool’s gold for the Hollywood jet-set, and it’s intellectually dishonest. I personally know plenty of people who’ve never been drug mules. But – when this gem just hones in tightly and focuses on character – it’s actually pretty darn brilliant. Hats off to you, Netflix. You’ve got a winner on your hands.