‘Orange is The New Black’ is The New Awesome

By August 1, 2013
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Alright look, I know you probably have a list of shows on your “must watch” list. I’m sure you’re finally getting around to playing catch up on those “Breaking Bad” episodes you may have missed since the premiere of the final eight episodes is right around the corner. Hell, “Orphan Black” and “Homeland” both need your attention. Seriously, I get it. As much as I love me some Walter White (remind me to tell you of the time I almost lost my shit at Bryan Cranston outside my favorite coffee house…), I feel like it is necessary you hit the pause button on all of that.

Netflix has done something really awesome and it deserves your attention. No, I’m not talking “Arrested Development,” or “House Of Cards,” or “Hemlock Grove” (good God, definitely not “Hemlock Grove”!). I’m referring to the brilliant new show entitled “Orange Is The New Black”. Netflix is definitely ahead of the pack in supplying original online programming to the masses. Sure, Amazon Prime just greenlit a bunch of pilots and Hulu has The Awesomes premiering soon, but none of them have any Emmy nominations under their belt. Netflix now does. And while the Emmy noms were being announced, Netflix up and brought OITNB to the world.

Dare I say, it’s their best original program to date.

The series is based on the memoir of Piper Kerman and follows the character of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), as she serves a 15 month sentence in federal prison. Bad decisions can really come back to bite you and her mistake of being a mule in a drug trafficking ring all in the name of love for her then girlfriend Alex (Laura Prepon) did just that. Here, we accompany Piper on her journey from a comfortable existence with fiance Larry (Jason Biggs) to adjusting to the cold, hard, weird truths of life inside Litchfield Prison.

When I read Patton Oswalt’s tweet about the show, I started thinking maybe it was a smart decision to give this show a shot. Because, if Patton likes it…

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Giving one episode a shot turned into a five hour binge watch marathon and in two days, I’ve almost finished the series. It’s that good. There are many reasons why but the big one that stands out in my mind are the characters. Piper Kerman’s story is definitely a real one, which makes this fictitious rendition of her experience that much more entertaining. Plus, Jenji Kohan (“Weeds”) is the show’s creator and every episode seems to simply blend drama and comedy together so seamlessly that, be it based on a true story or not, the end product is a production that I’ve yet to find any issues with at all.

Story can only get you so far, though. Since this is in a prison, “OITNB” not only tells us Piper’s story, but we’re given an inside look into the characters she encounters there. And this is where the real meat of what makes the show work resides. Sure, it is Piper’s story. But the work of the ensemble cast is what brings this all together into one extremely enjoyable television program.

All of them are pretty great. But just for the record, these are the ones I look forward to seeing the most in an episode.

Susan “Crazy Eyes” Warren (Uzo Aduba)

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Crazy Eyes got the name for a reason and that reason is she’s got some crazy damn eyes! Played by Uzo Aduba, Ms. Warren over here walks a fine line between innocently sincere and batshit bonkers. Personally, I’m drawn to characters that are of a weird or quirky nature so this one’s a no-brainer for me. Crazy Eyes develops a wee bitty crush on Chapman and seeing it drawn out is a pisser…literally. Plus, this character brought the word “epiglottis” back onto my radar, so there’s that.

George “Pornstache” Mendez (Pablo Schreiber)

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With a character named Pornstache, you know he’s gotta be sleazy. Mr. Mendez right here is a straight up dickish sleazeball douchebag. Of the despicable male characters on this show (there are a few), this guy right here is the worst. He’s sexist, abusive and holds a position of power. That’s not to say he doesn’t get his comeuppance. You may recognize Mr. Schreiber here for his work as Nick Sobotka on HBO’s “The Wire”. What you may not know is Pablo Schreiber is Ray Donovan’s half brother. Wait, I mean Liev Schreiber. Oops.

Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox)

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Sophia Burset is transgender as is Laverne Cox, the actress who plays her. I believe we’ve all become quite comfortable with seeing transgender people on reality shows and not much else when it comes to television programming. “OITNB” is the first show in recent memory that showcases a transgender character with as much depth, development, humor and honesty as we see here with Sophia. Of the inmates featured in the show, Sophia is one of the more complex and layered characters. Fun fact: Jodie Foster directed Episode 3 of “OITNB,” which is the episode that focuses on Sophia’s backstory.

Galina “Red” Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew)

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Red is probably the most powerful character on “OITNB.” It took me a whole episode, sitting here, scratching my head, until I figured out I was looking at none other than Captain Kathryn Janeway from “Star Trek: Voyager.” Her performance here is worthy of an award. That’s right, I said it! I better see an Emmy nod for Mulgrew next year! Reznikov is the Head Chef and also plays the role of matriarch inside the prison. She leads a group known as “Red’s Girls” and it’s established early on in the series that she is the wrong person to offend if you want to live comfortably inside Litchfield’s walls.

Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling)

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It would be sort of sad if the character based on the woman who wrote the book about her 15 months in prison that this show is based on was just an okay character. Thankfully, Taylor Schilling brings a nuanced performance as Chapman that is reminiscent of Mary-Louise Parker’s in “Weeds.” Coincidence? No, obviously not since Jenji Kohan’s handy work is all over this brilliant show. Schilling walks a fine line between heartbreaking drama and quirky comedy with effortless grace as we watch Piper Chapman’s adjustment to prison life unfold.

Oh, and I’d be remiss not to comment on her face.

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As an actor, it’s a gift to be able to portray a character’s emotionality through just facial expressions. The subtlety in her reactions alone, whether depressing or chuckle worthy, all lend to the overall character that is Piper Chapman and without this detail, I’m not sure she would be so entertaining to watch or so engaging for the audience to empathize with as we accompany her on this journey.

Let’s be clear here: I’ve only listed the characters that truly stand out to me. Everyone in this ensemble cast does a fantastic job – Laura Prepon as Alex, Natasha Lyonne as Nicky, Yael Stone as Lorna Morello – seriously, there are so many to name, but you get the picture. Actually, just look below at that picture!

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It’s rare when a production exemplifies the perfect mix of script work, direction, character development and performance by the actors involved. “OITNB” achieves this and then some. And honestly, like Patton Oswalt said, if you’re not yet watching it at this point, I really don’t know what to do with you.

“Orange Is The New Black” premiered on July 11th and the reaction to the show has been so damn good, not only has a Season 2 been announced, they’ve already begun filming! Netflix has yet to announce a specific premiere date for the new season but expect Chapman and Co. to return for more craziness in 2014.

Until then, seriously, go watch the show!

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Aside from throwing words onto your screen here, he has written for the likes of FEARnet, Examiner, Dread Central and MTV Movies Blog. And yes, he was Percy on VR Troopers.