Remakes (House of Cards) and reboots (Arrested Development) are one way to go when establishing a brand — let's just forget about the atrocious Hemlock Grove for now — but with Orange Is the New Black, Netflix finally achieves its eureka moment with a terrifically entertaining piece of original programming that's truly and bracingly original.
The setting, an upstate New York women's prison, isn't all that new, but Orange — adapted by Weeds' Jenji Kohan from a memoir by Piper Kerman — makes it fresh by mining a deep vein of absurdist humor with an unexpectedly generous empathy for the outrageous characters its overwhelmed heroine encounters in her nightmare odyssey behind bars. When anxious Piper Chapman (a wryly understated and immediately sympathetic Taylor Schilling) is being processed to start her 15-month sentence, she's assured this isn't OZ — and it also isn't Chained (or Caged) Heat. This show is much cooler than that.
In the fourth of 13 hours Netflix is making available all at once starting Thursday (my advice: savor this one, no need to binge), Piper complains to her gruff new roommate: "I have been here for less than two weeks. I have been starved out, felt up, teased, stalked, threatened and called Taylor Swift." Piper is interesting enough — more resilient than a mere victim, less noble than an actual hero — that you laugh because you're not sure if she's more upset about her personal safety or the indignity of being "Swift"-boated by her tormentors. She first wins us over when she begs her fiancé (a likeably menschy Jason Biggs) during his first visit, "Promise me you're not watching Mad Men without me." (Seriously, Piper, not so much an issue this year.)
There's more to Piper than meets the eye — her incarceration harks back a decade to a lesbian fling with a drug-runner (an unrecognizable Laura Prepon) who ratted on Piper to reduce her own sentence — and the same goes for her fellow inmates. What makes Orange Is the New Black so satisfying as it unfolds is that it reveals compelling back stories to many of Piper's new acquaintances — starting in episode 2 with the formidable Russian chef "Red" (Kate Mulgrew, savoring each chew of the scenery) whose cooking Piper inadvertently insults. And this is one place where you do not want to p--- off the lunch lady! Turns out Red's antagonistic rage has roots in her own feelings of social inadequacy — not that she's willing to share with this quaking newbie who introduces herself by saying, "I make artisanal bath products." (Even though it's true, hardly the sort of information that will win friends and influence enemies.)
When things get too intense, Piper is counseled on several occasions to remember, "It's only temporary." Orange, on the other hand, will be around for a while, having been renewed before its premiere for a second season. This kind of early announcement can often feel like misguided arrogance, but who can blame Netflix for jumping the gun for something as promising as Orange?
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THE SILLY SEASON: Back to the world of real TV, where things are decidedly unreal. Especially on Syfy, which has transplanted its kitschy creature features for now from Saturdays to Thursday. Getting a jump on next month's Shark Week on Discovery, Syfy devotes much of the day and night to shark-tastic cheesefests, including replays of the infamous Sharktopus (1 pm/12c) and the lesser known Swamp Shark (3 pm/2c), all leading to a new contender for the Camp Hall of Fame: Sharknado (9/8c), which assembles a Love Boat-worthy collection of pop-culture flotsam (Ian Ziering, Tara Reid, John Heard) to contend with an unnatural disaster in which a mammoth storm "sucks sharks from the ocean and hurls them onto land" (Syfy's words, on which no one can improve). Is this really any sillier than an entire town trapped under a mysterious invisible dome? OK, I suppose it is.
Or you could spend an hour watching celebrities play parlor games under Jane Lynch's snarky supervision on NBC's Hollywood Game Night (10/9c), an exercise in forced frivolity that's as harmless as it is instantly forgettable (while reminding us why most good game shows clock in at 30 instead of 60 minutes). The premiere is worth watching if only to try to interpret whether a disheveled Matthew Perry — the butt of many a hair joke, deservedly so — is really put out or just putting us on. (Given how NBC treated Go On, you'd like to believe the former.) His fellow Friends co-star Lisa Kudrow sits on the opposite team, but her manic couch-mate Martin Short rarely lets anyone else get the spotlight, prompting Lynch to inevitably declare, "When did I lose control of this game?" In the final round of Charades, where even Perry pitches in enthusiastically, you finally get a sense of the good time Game Night is trying to evoke.
THE THURSDAY GUIDE: Not to be confused with NBC's comedy-drama Camp — oh, why not confuse them, who would care? — USA Network dives into the reality pool (or here, lake) with the reality competition Summer Camp(8/7c), in which grown-ups return to camp (in Big Bear, Calif.) to square off in contests reminiscent of the outdoor games they played in summers of yore. ... On USA's Burn Notice (9/8c), Michael tries to escape Cuba alongside a former Russian agent (Alona Tal). ... BBC America's giddy The Graham Norton Show wraps its season (9/8c) with guests including The Heat's Sandra Bullock and Samuel L. Jackson, and an hour later, Graham looks back at the highlights of the entire season. ... Discovery exposes another high-risk job you probably never thought about having in Airplane Repo (10/9c), profiling "bounty hunters of the sky" (their words) hired by banks to repossess private aircraft of rich folks whose finances have come back down to earth.