Weeds fans were cheering when it was announced that the show’s creator Jenji Kohan would be returning to TV with Netflix’s original series, Orange is the New Black, which premiered July 11. In many respects, it’s even better than its predecessor.
Kohan has an uncanny ability to draw viewers into narratives involving largely unfamiliar territory. In Showtime’s comedy-drama, Weeds, we gained insight into the drug-smuggling world—from cookie-cutter, suburban weed-slinging to Mexican underground tunnels shipping drugs across the border—and at the same time were invested into Nancy Botwin’s (Mary-Louise Parker) quirky and dysfunctional family.
In Orange is the New Black, Kohan introduces audiences to the world of the women’s prison system, and makes it fascinating because it’s something rarely covered in TV. Oz and Prison Break embodied the male experience in the penitentiary, but the narrative surrounding the shows revealed an extremely brutal and dark environment—which isn’t to say that’s not how the real world is, but Kohan’s take on the situation is a refreshing look and makes for engrossing binge-watching. Would there be lesbians in this new series? Would there be girl fights? Would there be inside-corruption? Yes, to all of the above.
The show’s protagonist, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) is a well-to-do 32-year-old from Connecticut, who gets locked-up in the Litchfield, NY prison for a 15-month sentence for carrying a suitcase of drug money at an airport for her once-girlfriend, Alex (Laura Prepon) nearly a decade ago. (Yes, she was a lesbian—which is something she keeps alluding to as something of the past to her friends and family.) Right before she left for the jailhouse, she was on the cusp of getting her scented soap and lotion products into high-end department store Barney’s, and had just gotten engaged to her struggling journalist fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs).
Although the show—which is based off of the real-life memoir Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Woman’s Prison—follows Piper’s struggles and achievements in the jail, one of the more fascinating elements of the show are the backstories on the lives of her fellow inmates. Each episode includes flashbacks, in a fashion similar to Lost, depicting their lives pre-prison and what led them to jail. The characters are given depth and added dimensions through these vignettes into their lives. One of the most interesting characters is Red (played by Kate Mulgrew, a familiar face from Star Trek: Voyager), a Russian alpha-female who serves as the prison’s cook and a force to be reckoned with, but has a soft spot for mothering the former drug addicts. Sophia (Laverne Cox) is the transgender hairstylist who is fighting to get her medical hormone treatments behind bars, and has a wife and son in the mix; Natasha Lyonne (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) portrays Nicky, a former junkie; and Taryn Manning’s (Sons of Anarchy) Pensatucky, is a god-fearing, Westboro church member.
What Piper reveals about prison is the segregation between races, the petty fights and gossiping, and how not to overstep boundaries. While Weeds teetered more on the comedic side, Orange is the New Black brings more heart into its stories. In Episode 1, Piper makes the mistake of insulting Red’s cooking and is “starved-out” until she figures out a way to make it up to her. Whenever she talks to her best friend Polly (Maria Dizzia) or Larry on the phone or during visits, she tells them about the drama unfolding within the cell walls, and then realizes how small her world sounds when she sees the looks on their faces.
Orange is the New Black is one of the finest shows Netflix has secured, and it’s a show that’s expected to grow since it was announced in June that Netflix would be renewing it for a second season. Fans can rejoice again because Kohan is back.