Film & Television

Netflix Review: ‘Orange is the New Black’ — The Bad Girls Club is Back

To binge or not to binge. In the age of Netflix, that really is the question. The much-anticipated fourth season of Orange is the New Black was released last Friday. Thanks to the magic of on-demand digital delivery, fans have a choice to pace themselves or indulge in a 13-episode marathon. Decisions, decisions.

Orange began as a fairly faithful dramatization of Piper Kerman’s bestselling 2010 memoir Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison. The book (like the first season of the Netflix show) was essentially a “fish out of water” story. In 1993, Kerman was a recent graduate from Smith College. She became romantically involved with another woman and ended up transporting drug money for her. Several years later, after Kerman had “pieced herself back together” and was living a conventional yuppie life, she was indicted and sentenced to 15 months in federal prison.

Fast forward a few years. Writer-producer Jenji Kohan, acclaimed for her outrageous Showtime original series Weeds, read the book and arranged a meeting with Kerman. Not long after, Netflix and Lionsgate agreed to co-produce the series with Kohan as the creative frontrunner, and it premiered in July of 2013.

From the beginning, Orange is the New Black (often abbreviated as OITNB to make it easier for fans to rave about it on social media) was a hit with audiences, critics and award shows. In its first season, it earned nods from the Golden Globes, Writers Guild and Producers Guild, as well as 12 Emmy nominations. In fact, it holds the honor of being the only series to have been nominated for both Best Television Comedy and Best Television Drama. Initial seasons were entered as comedies, but in 2015, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences changed its rules so that any show that runs an hour has to enter under the Drama category, whether it was written to be funny or not.

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Regardless of some industry insiders crying “Foul,” the change benefited the show. OITNB won the well-deserved Best Drama Series award in 2015.

It’s hard to hone in on any one element as Orange’s key to success. The writing is brilliant, the direction deft, and the cast continues to grow not only in terms of the number of fine actresses involved but in the breadth and depth of their stories.

Taylor Schilling, who plays Piper Chapman, began as the show’s obvious star, supported by a half dozen or so featured characters and a colorful ensemble. As the season’s have progressed however, Piper’s story (which long ago strayed from Kerman’s real-life experience in unexpected and quite marvelous ways) became just one of the show’s concurrent plotlines. She came into the prison system as an almost-innocent, but last season left us with a Piper who had graduated to someone more “gangsta,” determined to live up to her jailhouse tattoo: “Trust no bitch.”

Other stellar cast members include Kate Mulgrew, Yael Stone, Lori Petty, Natasha Lyonne, Michelle Hurst, Lea DeLaria, Annie Golden and more talented women of every shape, size, age, and color than I can possibly name here. Uzo Aduba is a standout as “Crazy Eyes,” a role that earned her a Best Supporting Actress Emmy. Compelling transgender actress Laverne Cox was featured on the cover of TIME magazine a year before Caitlyn Jenner appeared on Vanity Fair.  And, Laura Prepon, best-known for her many seasons as Donna on That 70s Show, plays Alex, Piper’s former girlfriend, described as “the Bette Paige of Litchfield Prison.” Like all of the show’s characters, her story has been fleshed out; we may have originally blamed her for Piper’s predicament, but she’s a victim in some ways too.

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As are all the inmates at Litchfield. (Litchfield is fictitious, but loosely based on FCI Danbury, where Kerman served, as well as other inmate celebrities over the years, including Leona Helmsley, Lauryn Hill and Real Housewife of New Jersey Teresa Giudice.) Each woman is incarcerated despite her best pre-jail efforts to stay clean, get an education, keep her children or love the right man, who invariably has turned out to be not just wrong, but an abusive criminal. These stories unfold episodically, helping us understand why these women ended up in prison and how they are surprisingly similar to each of us.

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