Netflix women-in-prison series from Jenji Kohan is more 'Weeds' than 'Oz' - in mostly good ways
“This isn’t ‘Oz,’” the protagonist is told at the outset of “Orange is the New Black,” and mercifully, there isn’t an ass tattooed or eye gouged out in the previewed episodes. Indeed, Netflix’s new women-in-prison dramedy — picked up for a second season prior to this week’s premiere — bears a much closer resemblance to creator Jenji Kohan’s previous show, “Weeds,” with a more interesting assortment of characters and ornate narrative structure. Although messy and at times uneven, the one-hour series feels like a bull’s-eye with the sort of premium-cable space the distributor is eager to carve out with its original efforts.
Derived with creative liberties from a memoir by Piper Kernan, “Orange” features Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman, who is turning herself in to serve a 15-month prison stint as the program begins. “You can’t show any weakness. That’s what all of the books said,” she tells her fiance Larry (Jason Biggs), who actually proposes after learning that Piper’s past — a lesbian relationship with an international drug dealer (Laura Prepon) — has caught up with her.
At first, the show feels like it’s going to paint with a familiar palette, capitalizing on Piper’s status (much like the pot mom from “Weeds”) as a waif-like outsider in a seamy world. As the action unfolds, though, Kohan and company explore unexpected quadrants as they recount the stories of other inmates, flashing back to reveal snippets or clues regarding how they wound up there. So while the principals are confined, the plot threads can unspool in a variety of intriguing directions.
Schilling, frankly (who last wore unflattering outfits in NBC’s hospital drama “Mercy”), is stuck with a thankless role as the viewers’ alter ego — a yuppie dealing with the lost privacy, longing for simple things and struggle to maintain one’s sanity that prison entails. While grounding the show in that fashion makes perfect sense, there are moments where it feels like someone from “Grey’s Anatomy” got thrown into an old prison exploitation movie.
The most appealing elements, rather, come from the wealth of supporting players, including a breakout turn by Yael Stone as a wonderfully distinctive character who seems to have parachuted in from a 1930s gangster film. Others of note include Laverne Cox as a transgender former firefighter, Pablo Schreiber (“The Wire”) as a sleazy guard nicknamed “Pornstache” and an unrecognizable Kate Mulgrew as a Russian who, given her job overseeing the kitchen, fellow prisoners are well advised not to cross.
The setting creates an extremely organic means to provide all the nudity, unsettling situations and unpredictable encounters premium viewers have come to expect, from clandestine photos of genitalia to bodily fluids to the unbalanced inmate (Uzo Aduba) whose acts of kindness toward Piper soon give way to the pronouncement she’s her “prison wife.”
Overall, the half-dozen episodes screened (out of 13 ordered) justify Netflix’s faith, and even without anyone fully understanding the service’s algorithm in determining success, it’s not hard to see why this fertile mix of ingredients and marketable concept would be viewed favorably even before stepping up to the plate. Because while this might not be “Oz,” poor Piper sure as hell isn’t in Kansas anymore, either.