Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Orange is the New Black

The demise of the Hollywood movie with substance and character may have been the impetus to alleged second coming of "The Golden Age of Television," which itself may have led to alternative channels of creative programming, of the ilk that movie studios have little interest to invest in.  Whatever hyperbolic passages have lead us to what where we are now in this contemporary and confusion landscape of media, the ballsy folks in charge of Netflix seem clearly tuned to something-- something special, something weird, something challenging and daunting and surprising.  The magnitude and game-changing hosannas may materialize into nothing, once digested, but Netflix's new original series, Orange is the New Black is, at first glance, on mere face value, is rich and ripe with character and spark, the type of which Hollywood filmmakers have nearly completely neutered themselves free of, and joins the ranks of the most addictive and sharply etched serials currently navigating our regular air-waves.

Compulsively watchable and thoroughly engaging, Orange is the New Black, created by Jenji Kohan (Weeds) and based on the memoir by Piper Kerman, the show takes place in a rather dreary place-- a minimum security correctional facility for women-- yet is never dreary in itself.  Before you notice the rich tapestry of an ensemble cast-- played by a wide variety of extraordinary female characters, of which are of nearly all colors, sizes and ages-- or before the stories engage in their binge-worthy way, the take away from the beginning of Orange is the New Black is it's clearly established tone.  It's not quite a tragedy, nor a comedy, but something nearly inarticulately pitched in the center, where absurdity meets realism and cynicism meets compassion.  Pitched somewhere as a wry Oz meets George Cuckor's The Women, the greatest asset Kohan asserts in her series is a lack of judgement and an abundance of humanity and understanding, coupled with a pay-TV penchant for strong language and nudity.

The lead character of the show is Piper Chapman (played by relative newcomer Taylor Schilling-- she was Zac Efron's doomed other half in the soggy Nicholas Sparks adaptation The Lucky Ones as well as a background female hostage in last years Best Picture winner Argo), a young and pretty blonde, a Smith graduate who comes from an affluent WASP-y background.  Before becoming one half of a yuppie couple with her writer fiancé Larry (played by Jason Biggs), she went astray in her early twenties.  Seeking adventure and a sense of whatever may have been missing from an otherwise early life of privilege, Piper had a bisexual tryst with an international drug dealer and years later was brought down.  And so, the prim and proper Piper is faced with a sentence of fifteen months behind bars.

Piper is but the audience surrogate (or at least that's how it starts out), she's our perspective through the scary, murky terrain of prison.  And while ably played by Schilling, whose affective at selling the deer-caught-in-a-headlights expressions Piper must face on a daily routine, the character itself starts out a bit bland, somewhat like a focused group necessity for a series that features an rousing ensemble of African-American, Hispanic, gay, straight, old and young women.  Fortunately, the series strays from the "Paris Hilton in prison" conceit as the show progresses, and Piper grows into a more complete, interesting, fascinating and even duplicitous creature than initially thought of-- it's pure Darwinism, a prison survival of the fittest type of test that she must go through each and every day, as well as further complications on the fact that her criminal ex-girlfriend, Alex (Laura Prepon) is incarcerated in the very same facility.

Never mind that drama, for the strength and virtue of Orange in the New Black comes in the shape of it's expansive and wonderfully cast ensemble group of players, as they navigate through the sexual and racial politics of prison life.  There's Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst), Piper's intimating senior black roommate whose stolidity is undone by a lifetime of keeping things bottled inside, Morello (Yael Stone), the sometimes sapphic trying to keep herself pure for her waiting fiancé, Suzanne aka "Crazy Eyes" (Uzo Abuda, remarkable), the one psych patient who early on calls Piper her wife, Tiffany (Taryn Manning), the born again former meth-addict who makes matters difficult for Piper, Nicky (an extraordinary Natasha Lyonne) as the kindly former drug addict and Kate Mulgrew (Capt. Janeway to the fanboys) as Red, the Russian-born den mother of the kitchen, whose intimating glare would have melted Stalin.  It feels like something remarkably stupid to think in 2013, but such a strong, female-centered ensemble is in itself grounds for celebrating, even if the weren't half as strong as it is.

Which is not to say it doesn't walk a tightrope.  Framed in a way that calls to mind Lost, each episode is inter-cut with snippets of the prisoners in their pre-prison days, which motivates and informs their characters adding heft and gravity to their armored prison bravado.  It's a cliché for sure, and certainly some backstories and characters trajectories are more exciting then others, it mostly works, especially when the subtle and unexpected heart and pathos chug at the heart without much distracting fan fair to subside the drama.  The tone itself is a tightrope walk as bursts of absurdest humor come nearly out of nowhere, only offset by something greater down the road-- for instance in an early episode, Piper's random siting of a feral chicken on the prison grounds becomes a nearly holy grail for her fellow inmates, only to be paid off by a novel, on the same dime, sad and silly punchline. 

The way Kohan and the show writers marry the absurd with the tragic is somewhat sublime, the way they weave storylines of a tragic drug-addled suicide with the poignant acceptance the struggle of a transgendered inmate (Real-life transgendered Laverne Cox deserves some special prize for her performance on the show alone) is televisions, or live-streaming whatsits reward for quality.  As it's uniformed feel of acceptance as a whole.  For a show about criminals that teeters on the women-behaving-badly theme that's been well trodden, Orange is the New Black is it's strange and surprising corners, manages to be utterly humane-- incidentally Jodie Foster directed one of the most LGBT(or LBT, perhaps?)   -specific episodes of the first season, perhaps by act of penance, but for whatever means, one of the most artistically accomplished so far.

If there is a caveat, and there are a few despite the richness and addictive fervor of Orange is the New Black.  The outside chronicles of Larry, however ably played by a grown-up Biggs, take away from the ladies of the show, as do the dated sitcom caricatures that make up Piper's family and friends; they belong elsewhere.  There's also a bit of a suggestion that Kohan and her writers reach are a bit further than need be with extended plots of screen time for the mostly scum-worthy prison guards and their own agendas-- some pay-off nicely like the treacly-sounding googly-eyes romance between a guard and an inmate and the corrupt Porn-stache douche who makes life hell for Red, but others are sodden and again, dated clichés in their own right that never quite transcend the bargain basement segments the performers are given.

As a whole, it's a win for Netflix, which this year has given us House of Cards to appease the sorts of drama that Hollywood has abandon, the fourth season of Arrested Development to appease the fanboys and now Orange is the New Black, which sets a new bellwether for the service.  Can't wait for season two.  B+ 

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