Netflix has been making news lately, claiming it is no longer a permanent lending library of films—like Blockbuster used to be. Instead it’s now a television station with a rotating selection of movies and some original content—à la HBO. This is disappointing to those of us who really want access to a permanent lending library of films. But the company’s argument is growing ever more solid as it continues to pump out original content like “Hemlock Grove,” “Arrested Development” and what is looking like its biggest breakout, the edgy comedy “Orange Is the New Black.”
Based on the memoir by Piper Kerman and produced by Jenji Kohan (Showtime’s “Weeds”), “Orange Is the New Black” is solid, sophisticated and worthy of some serious attention. Earlier this year, trying to follow the same model as Netflix, rival download service Amazon tried to lure viewers with cheapjack shows like “Zombieland: The Series.” The penny-pinching efforts showed. Netflix, on the other hand, has spared little expense—shelling out big bucks for another season of cult hit “Arrested Development” and luring Kohan away from Showtime. In its prime “Weeds” was one of the best comedies on TV. Toward the end of its eight-season run, the show was still able to generate laughs, but the concept had grown visibly shopworn. “Orange Is the New Black” allows Kohan to stretch out in a fresh new direction.
The show follows Connecticut prep school blonde Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling, Atlas Shrugged) to women’s prison where she’s being incarcerated for her part in a drug-smuggling operation 10 years ago. Piper, a self-described “former lesbian,” got talked into bringing a suitcase full of money back from Thailand by her one-time lover (Laura Prepon from “That ’70s Show”). Since her “adventurous” days, Piper has become a model citizen. She’s even got a fiancé, a nebbishy nice guy played by American Pie’s Jason Biggs. But now, ratted out by parties unknown, she’s turned herself over to authorities to serve a 15-month stint.
Piper tries to look on the bright side of her situation. “I’ll get all ripped and read everything on my Amazon wish list,” she speculates hopefully. But prison is nothing like she’s expecting. “This ain’t ‘Oz’ in here,” says her caseworker. Odds are she isn’t going to get stabbed. But if they want to, her fellow inmates can destroy her with rumor and innuendo. That’s the world in which Piper is now stuck—a vicious, 24-hour-a-day catfight for superiority. Like high school. With razor wire.
Each episode free-associates itself back and forth in time, relating the circumstances that led to Piper’s current situation as well as the backstories of the inmates around her. It’s a great format for both comedy and drama, and the cast is definitely up to the task. Schilling and Biggs demonstrate a fun chemistry. Prepon gets her best role ever as the tough lesbian who (whoops) ends up in prison alongside Piper. The standout of the supporting cast is Uzo Aduba, hilarious as the overly amorous inmate “Crazy Eyes.”
All 13 episodes of the series are available at Netflix—perfect for binge-viewing or carefully parceling out week-by-week. It’s funny, different and better than just about anything you’ll find on the summer TV airwaves.