Tuesday, September 24, 2013
These movies were all singularly awful, filled with sadistic lesbian prison guards and showgirls gone bad. There was so much silicone the prison could float. In every film the girls plotted their escape, carving guns out of soap and turning nail files into knives. Of course, where were they going to hide them since they were always naked?
When I saw that Netflix announced a new original series based on a woman’s prison I thought, hey, I’ll give this a chance. After all, I’m a red blooded heterosexual male. I like watching women carve soap.
And what was the first scene of the pilot? Naked women prisoners showering. But something was different. Off. Shocking even. The breasts were real. They were in proportion to their bodies. What’s going on here? It was then I knew – this was like no women-in-prison movie I had ever seen. In fact, as I continued to watch I realized that ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK may just be the best new show of the year (Sorry DADS).
What a revelation! A prison drama where you care about everybody, even the scumbags. Jenji Kohan has taken a book by Piper Kerman and turned it into a riveting drama that will have you at times gasping, crying, and laughing out loud. You totally forgive the episodes where there is no nudity.
What Ms. Kohan has brilliantly done is create a fascinating world and populated it with wonderful, rich characters. These were all the girls in high school who went with the shop majors so I generally gave them a wide berth, but by episode four I wanted to adopt half of them, or at least rescind the restraining order.
Leading you through this world is Piper “Chapman,” a reckless young yuppie who falls for lesbian hottie Alex Vause, and as any good girlfriend would do, helps Alex smuggle drugs across international borders.
Now it’s ten years later and this white, privileged willowy blond is thrown in the slammer with 250 of Mike Tyson’s former girlfriends.
And then there’s Laura Prepon as super cool manipulative bitch/girlfriend, Alex. I have to admit, I had only seen Laura in sitcoms and always thought she was an enemy of comedy. That Chelsea Handler NBC show alone should have gotten her thrown into solitary with no hope of parole. But in this role she’s fabulous. You see the vulnerability underneath her too-cool-for-school hipness. When not doing drunk jokes or pubic hair jokes there’s a real talent there. Who knew?
All the inmates are awesome. Two standouts for me were Laverne Cox as the transgender hairdresser/former fire fighter, and Taryn Manning as a wigged out Jesus freak. It’s as if Boyd Crowder from JUSTIFIED and Sarah Palin had a child.
On the home front there’s Chapman’s fiancée Jason Biggs. With the love of his life behind bars he’s faced with the prospect that if he wants sex he better get out the ol’ apple pies again. But the guy who almost steals the series is Michael Chermus, who plays Chapman’s bizarre brother who lives in a trailer 100 miles from civilization and in his folksy, stoner way doles out marvelous perceptive observations, as if he were in a Coen Brothers movie.
ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK is really DRAMA IS THE COMEDY. Make no mistake, the prison is gritty and at times horrific – Shutter Island meets Sorority Girls – but there is delicious dark humor sprinkled throughout. The laughs come from the absurdity of the situation, a la MASH. Red tape, incompetence, ignorance, and people trying to make the best of a horrendous situation. You know you're in for a special prison series when during visitation Chapman pleads with her fiancee to not watch MAD MEN without her. And a scene where two black inmates imitate white girls is vintage Richard Pryor.
I know it’s tough to recommend a show that many of you can’t get. For now you have to be Netflix subscribers, but the series DVD will be coming out soon. I can't recommend it enough. And it's not just me. ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK is a big hit. More folks have downloaded it than HOUSE OF CARDS and even the hyper-hyped ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT.
Season two is currently in production. The only thing I could possibly suggest to improve the show would be to have the girls read their mail in the shower. If Kevin Spacey had done that he might've beaten Jeff Daniels last night. (By the way, a friend watching the Emmys said this: ORANGE IS THE NEW JEFF DANIELS.)
UPDATE: To everyone who asked my reaction to the Cracked.com article claiming that Shelley Long tried to get Kelsey Grammer fired off of CHEERS and he was only retained because the producers so hated Shelley, I will address and answer this in tomorrow's post.
By Ken Levine at 6:00 AM