Orange is the New Black might not have the hype of Arrested Development or House of Cards, but it is by far the most satisfying original series Netflix has released this year.
From Weeds creator Jenji Kohan, Orange follows Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), an upper-middle class woman who finds herself incarcerated for a crime she committed 10 years prior. But Kohan isn't simply rehashing the same pampered, fish-out-of-water angle of Weeds for another suburban satire. This time, Kohan uses the familiar white protagonist as a medium to tell stories of those typically marginalized in mainstream media.
"I love that our way in was this kind of yuppie white girl story, because if you go to a network and you say, 'I want to talk about Latinos and blacks and their prison experience and the cycle of poverty,' it's not going to be a big sale," Kohan says. To get around this hurdle, Kohan says she used Piper as a "Trojan horse" to "expand the world and tell everyone's story."
This includes the vindictive Russian head chef (Kate Mulgrew), the transgender former fireman (Laverne Cox) whose wife is more thrown by her foray into crime than her transition into a woman, the no-nonsense Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst), who will go to any lengths to protect those in her care, and Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba), a hilariously persistent inmate who aims to make Piper her "prison wife."
While Orange is based on Piper Kerman's memoir of the same name, it's important to note that, with the exception of Piper and her immediate family, most of the characters are completely fictional. However, the writers do a fabulous job of crafting a back story for each character through brief flashbacks to their pre-prison life that explain how they landed in jail in the first place. These stories often making the supporting characters far more real and likable than Piper.
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Orange also eschews any fetishized portrayal of the women's prison system in favor of a broad, realistic depiction of female sexuality. It features a bisexual lead, a gay ex-girlfriend, a transgender woman coping without estrogen, a butch lesbian and others whose sexuality isn't defined (and doesn't need to be). "I don't think it's particularly lesbianism as much as sexuality," Kohan says. "Sex is so many things. It's emotion and it's closeness and it's expression and it's oppression, and it's so many things ... And when you're in prison, you need that expression. You need your sexuality, and if the only people there are women, you might express yourself with other women. I think certain people in the prison are absolutely lesbians, and I think others who might be gay for this day."
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Last week, Netflix made the bold decision to renew Orange for a second season before the series even debuted, and it's likely the company's confidence will pay off. By allowing Kohan the freedom to create a series free from network intervention, Orange is a consistent reflection of Kohan's vision in its rawness, its poignancy and its humor.
Of course, Orange is not without its flaws. Laura Prepon is terribly miscast as Piper's ex-girlfriend — who just so happens to be incarcerated in the same prison — and Piper's relationship with her fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs) leaves much to be desired. But you'd be a fool to let such minor details distract you from what's sure to become one of this summer's must-see series.
Orange is the New Black is available in its entirety to stream on Netflix beginning Thursday at 12 a.m. PDT.