Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Orange is the New Black: my review

From the first moment there was pay cable there were women-in-prison movies. It’s almost as if the delivery system was invented just for that purpose. They came on late at night and were ridiculously gratuitous. After all, since you could now show naked women on TV, why not show them naked all the time? Like reading their mail while showering.

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.

Chapman is played by relative newcomer Taylor Schilling. She could be the next Meryl Streep or Claire Danes. If this was a network show you know they’d have to hire Kim Raver. But credit to Netflix and Jenji Kohan for going with someone fresh and so talented. The show really puts Chapman through the wringer and Schilling soars through every emotion.

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?
Kate Mulgrew was another very pleasant surprise. She’s light years away from STAR TREK VOYAGER in both appearance and performance. She’s the inmate who essentially runs the place; the Russian czar of the cafeteria who proudly dispenses prison justice and pudding from Desert Storm. “Red” is a formidable opponent with high standards, which unfortunately don’t extend to menus.

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.

The prison staff also shines, notably Pablo Schneider who plays a sleaze ball guard with a mustache and attitude right out of BOOGIE NIGHTS. And I laughed every time they introduced the assistant warden played by Alysia Reiner. The camera would always start on her foot and slowly go up her long shapely leg. They missed a bet not just calling her Jessica Rabbit.

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.  


Scooter Schechtman said...

I didn't quite understand your review. Does it mean Laura Prepon gets naked or not?

Steve said...

Agreed. This is a great show. I am stumped a little bit about what to call it. It's not a TV series. It's not a movie. Is there a new term for a show that is released this way?

Kcasha said...

I agree with you totally on this! The only problem is that with Netflix, it is easy to binge-watch the whole season, then you go through withdrawals waiting for the next season. I only watched 2 episodes of House of Cards to far, and 10 of Arrested Development, but watched all of Orange is the New Black within a week. And I have to say, until I read that "Red" was played by Kate Mulgrew I didn't recognize her at all. Such great acting by all.

Pierre said...

I totaly agree. It's very rare to find this kind of realistic comedy in this format. I laughed, cried, I was scared for them. Perfect combination.

And what a cast! All of these girls, even little parts, are bringing more subtitlety and humanity to the writing.

I'm completely sold. Certainly the most interesting new show this year.

Maybe the way the flashbacks are used is a bit odd, it starts like it will be the struture of the show but then has less importance. I think there were there a possibility for very touching visual things (what they were as "real" women before prison) but it is only half used, no?

And thanks for your blog by the way!

Anonymous said...

Steve, in some parts of the industry, this is referred to as a new media production.

Anonymous said...

Ken, maybe this says more about me than I am willing to face up to, but I keep hoping Piper gets killed. I cannot believe that Piper is written so naïve, stupid and moronic. So, after the first couple of episodes, when I see that she is still not learning from her mistakes and is acting even more dumb and clueless, I am constantly hoping she gets iced by a shiv-wielding maniac so that the show can concentrate on more interesting, intelligent characters. - Jeff Clem, signing anonymous due to technical difficulties and not cowardice.

Dr. Shem said...

Taylor was one of the trio of beautiful nurses who co-starred in NBC's 2009 series, "Mercy," a fast-paced, in-your-face story of life in a big city hospital, appropriately named, Mercy...somewhere in Jersey. I found it to be very entertaining. It featured numerous "unknowns" incl. Ken's favorite hillbilly Godmother, Margo Martindale (but they never took advantage of her skills). Kate Mulgrew played Taylor's mother. Now she's followed her to prison as any good mom would.

T.J. said...

I loved... the first ten or so episodes. The turns toward the end really ticked me off, including the cliffhanger. I'll still tune in for season two, though. It is refreshing to see fully fleshed-out characters from some different races and socio-economic groups than are usually portrayed on TV.

Samira Wiley as Poussey Washington is great, too.

Jonathan Ernst said...

I agree with T.J., the end of the season was a let down. Instead of staying focused on the characters and their personal stories the show ventures into Pulp Fiction violence territory. Why? The show was much more compelling without all the shivs.

Cap'n Bob said...

Ahh, Janes in Jail. Belles in Cells. C*nts in Cages. My favorite genre. Alas, Laura Prepon went over to the dark side (a Hubbardite), and I won't watch anything that supports one of them. But if she sees the light I might rejoin Netflix just to see this.

Johnny Walker said...

Sweet! That's the third recommendation I've had for this show. Can't wait to watch it.

Now watch THE WIRE, Ken! A lot of what you like about that show (everyone being likable, even the "bad guys" -- not so much the showering) is true there, too.

Anonymous said...

"The show really puts Chapman through the ringer and Schilling soars through every emotion."
Ringer or wringer?

Covarr said...

I thought this show was downright amazing. I can't wait for the second season.

I wanna read the book now, but I'm going to wait until the show is completely done, so that I don't end up disappointed if the show gets something wrong.

Ane said...

I liked it a lot. It's the first show in a long time I've seen where women don't wear layers of makeup and fancy expensive clothes. So you get to discover more of what's underneath all that. Everyone's more equal in a way. My favorite character is Poussey.

Dodgerdog said...

Kevin Spacey had a memorable shower scene in "American Beauty" and won the Academy Award for Best Actor. Thanks to Ken we all know what to expect next season in "House of Cards."

Mike said...

1) The source for the Kelsey/Shelley story is his biography "So Far".
2) I liked this quote from The Independent:
"Frasier has always been a slick confection, its writing competent and well oiled but hardly radical or surprising. Despite its reputation in the States as a highbrow show, because of the long words and fancy cultural references, it has, for the most part, acted as a kind of televisual comfort food, engaging but perfectly bland."
And that defines American network comedy at its best, eg. the Dick Van Dyke Show.

Johnny Walker said...

Interesting responses from Long there, Mike. Thanks for sharing them.

Here's what Grammer wrote in his autobiography "So Far..." about Long:

"The rumours about her are numerous and often vicious, but grossly exaggerated. I have nothing against Shelley personally; I am even in her debt."

Unfortunately the preview I found stopped there, so I can't go into the allegations he's about to make about her wanting his character off the show.

Looking forward to Ken's take!

VP81955 said...

Let's not forget what may be the mother of all women-in-prison films, 1933's "Ladies They Talk About," with Barbara Stanwyck in the lead role. No nudity, although since it is pre-Code there are plenty of implied situations, and a superb cast -- Lillian Roth as Barbara's cellmate, who sings "If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight" to a photo of Warners star Joe E. Brown (a little studio logrolling) and Ruth Donnelly as the prison matron who goes about the place with a cockatoo perched on her shoulder(!). Terrific movie, another Warners pre-Code gem.

Oh, and to Laura Prepon -- please pull a Leah Remini.

Unknown said...

Great review for Orange. Same for Lake Bell's voice over film . Good to know there is fun product for people over 14.
Bob McCormick.

Nat Gerter (sitcom room veteran) said...

A lot of good performances there, but the one that really gets me is Uzo Aduba as Crazy Eyes. Admittedly, the role is one that creates great opportunity for showing work, but she takes every advantage of it.

Brian said...

I agree with Ken - it's a great show. I like the ability to watch it when I want. And the finale - wow!

Michele said...

Watched OitnB and limited myself to 2 episodes a night max. Totally worth it. Great series, and I like the fact that Ken noticed the Pryor-esque dialogue between Poussey (accent adroite!) and Taystee. I actually laughed like I was at a comedy club. I liked that the writers don't treat the audience like goldfish and they expect for you to remember incidents that happened earlier in the series.

Favorite character "Crazy-eyes" followed by Poussey, but I found something to like in all of the characters. Funnily enough my least favorite prisoner is Chapman.

Dan Ball said...

Quite unexpectedly, my wife started watching this over the weekend. I joined in around the fourth episode and I got hooked. It was nice because there was only one season to watch so far.

The characters and their storylines are PHENOMENAL. However, there are so many things going on with them throughout the series that in 13 episodes, each plot line has no choice but to creep along at snail's pace. By the last episode of S1, too few of the minor subplots have been wrapped up. And no doubt they'll introduce new ones in S2 on top of these pre-existing ones.

It seems like they're really testing the limits of the 13 episode-season here. The Miss Claudette storyline seemed like a thread that should've been wrapped up by the end of S1, but it wasn't even addressed in the last two episodes. While it was interesting to follow, it wasn't pivotal to Piper's story and I just can't figure out why the writers wouldn't just close it up and get it out of the way before they start S2.

Also, I wasn't a fan of the Pennsatucky character and her presence in the series. Prior to her entrance, the series was satisfying enough by focusing on the corruption of the prison, Piper's introspection, and the telling of the other inmates' stories. That was great because it was different and it was a bit more cerebral. Then they tack on this goofy Pennsatucky character and turn her into a full-blown arch nemesis to Piper, rather than leaving her as a minor complication in an already-complicated life. It was just too over-the-top and predictable. Still kinda funny, though.