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Should you watch 'Orange Is The New Black?'

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I consider myself a TV snob. Earlier this year somebody tried to tell me about why I should be watching “The Following,” I quickly shut them down with “I haven’t watched a drama on the Big Four since ‘Friday Night Lights’.” Maybe I’m a yuppie in that I don’t like shows that I can get for free. So when Netflix debuted its third attempt at original programming, their .500 batting average was enough to make me watch “Orange Is The New Black” sight unseen because of the $8.99 price tag that came with it.

I like to think of Netflix creating their own programming as something similar to a bar beginning to brew their own beer. They have been offering you all these other great products and have developed an idea of what their customers want. With “House of Cards” they took the popularity of “Scandal” and the critical acclaim of “The West Wing” for their political overtones and fused it with the “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” formula of likable protagonists with despicable morals. Luckily I never had a lonely weekend to waste on “Hemlock Grove” like Robert Rich did, but to me it seemed like a terrible ripoff of a show that I had already abandoned in “True Blood.”

“Orange” is from Jenji Kohan, the same woman who created “Weeds” and the first episode feels like you’re watching an alternative universe episode of the former. In Showtime fashion, the first 15 minutes of the episode is littered with female nudity and you’re trying to figure out what path this show is going to lead you down. Taylor Schilling plays Piper Chapman, a woman in her early 30s who is engaged to Larry, played by Jason Biggs, 1 but is on the verge of surrendering herself to prison for smuggling drug money 10 years prior. 2 There were several parts during the first episode that made me think the show was going to be a comedic tour through Chapman’s year in prison and it would be a one year show. There was Pablo Schreiber 3 playing a prison guard with a mustache that looked like a push broom. Natasha Lyonne as the lesbian cellmate was a raging cliche. 4 Biggs, as the lonely fiance waiting on the outside, was sure to provide a lot of laughs as well as all the “fish out of water” prison scenarios.

But then the show crept past the 30-minute mark and suddenly it didn’t feel so much like “Weeds 2.0.” Schilling does a great job playing Chapman, adding much more depth to her character than just being a pretty white girl in a scary prison. There is a lot of Nancy Botwin‘s ability to create conflict out of nothing and then resolve it based purely on her personality in Chapman. Bro Jackson contributor Brandon Curtis said it best that throughout the first episode of her checking into prison and trying to get some understanding of how things work  she comes off as “extremely huggable” and you understand why her prison guard counselor takes such a liking to her. And then, at the end of the episode we find out that Chapman’s former girlfriend who caused her to get mixed up in the fringe drug game 10 years earlier is in the same prison as her, and played by Laura Prepon. 5

The show takes on a “Lost”-like format with flashbacks of various characters’ lives before they were sentenced to prison. Here we see that most of these inmates aren’t bad people, but rather just made one or two mistakes. There is a Russian who got caught up in the mob, a young junkie who got popped for shoplifting, a murderer who would make Dexter proud, and a college athlete who slowed down to let her partner catch up when fleeing the scene. The added depth to the characters transforms the prison into a real community.

The first half of the season does enough with comedy and interesting plot lines to keep the viewer engagement, but it doesn’t make you want to recommend it any of your friends. Starting with the Thanksgiving episode, the show is elevated to a new level. Relationships develop and change and you’re forced to take sides. The problems with mental health, prison funding, internal drug trafficking, and inmate guard relationships are brought to the forefront of the show. The show loses the traditional “let’s wrap the plot up with five minutes left and tie a nice bow on it” formula that had kept it somewhat predictable and goes darker, deeper. During my marathon watching this show, this was the point where I did the math to figure out that if I closed out the season I would be finished just before 6:00 a.m.

It was worth it.

Watch it at your own speed, but you’ll finish it in a fury. The initial concern of whether or not they can stretch the story into two seasons is completely forgotten. Now you’re worried if Chapman will only serve a year or if she’ll be a lifer and run the joint. In “The Wire”, Wee-Bey teaches us that “You only do two days. The day you go in, and the day you come out,” but “Orange” teaches us that there is the person you went in as, and there’s the person you come out as. 

Notes:

  1.  Biggs’ role is almost a carbon copy of his “American Pie” character right down to having a masturbation scene in one of the early episodes.
  2. Just missing out on the 12-year statute of limitations for her crime.
  3. Nicky Sobotka for all “The Wire” fans out there.
  4. Again, straight like a ripoff of her “American Pie” role.
  5. Donna Pinciotti from “That 70′s Show.”

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