Her brother David is well known in the TV industry as the co-creator of the comedy smash Will & Grace, but Jenji Kohan became a creative force on her own terms when she created Weeds, the audacious long-running Showtime dramedy starring Mary-Louise Parker in a Golden Globe-winning turn as widowed soccer mom Nancy Botwin, who started selling drugs to sustain her upper-middle-class lifestyle after her husband’s death.
Now Kohan is back with another noteworthy series: Orange Is the New Black, which began streaming all 13 episodes of its first season today on Netflix. Adapted from a similarly titled memoir by Piper Kerman, who carries an executive consultant credit here, this new show follows well-bred New Yorker Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) as she attempts to cope with a 15-month prison sentence for helping to transport a large sum of drug money for her erstwhile lesbian lover, Alex Vause (Laura Prepon, That ’70s Show).
The incident in question happened a decade ago, but Piper – who now is engaged to Larry Bloom (Jason Biggs), a nice Jewish writer who adores her – is charged and pleads guilty not long before the statute of limitations on the crime would have elapsed. Piper tries to put a good face on the situation, assuring Larry that she plans to use the time inside to improve herself via exercise and “reading everything on my Amazon wishlist.” She’s even gone as far as to study for her incarceration, poring over books advising new inmates on the best survival strategies (most of which turn out to be hooey).
Her prison counselor, Sam Healy (Michael Harney), tries to reassure her as well. “This isn’t Oz,” he tells Piper, referring to the gritty and violent HBO prison series of yore. “Women fight with gossip and rumors.”
Unfortunately, some of the inmates have other weapons at their disposal as well, such as bitter Russian kitchen manager Galina “Red” Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew in a startling and bold performance), whom Piper unwittingly and unwisely offends on their very first meeting. That prompts Red to withhold Piper’s access to food, both in the dining hall and in the visiting area vending machines, which mysteriously go out-of-order whenever Piper is nearby.
“I just didn’t expect to get punished while getting punished,” Piper complains to an inmate friend.
While Orange is different in terms of setting and characters, it shares creative DNA with Weeds in the way its central character is an upper-crust young white woman forced by circumstance to dive into a scary and potentially dangerous new world, as well as in its tone, basically a dark comedy with startling moments of violence or explosive drama.
I’ve seen two episodes, so I’m still trying to sort through the huge ensemble cast behind Schilling, but Constance Shulman as Zen-spouting Yogi Jones, Broadway musical veteran Beth Fowler as “killer nun” Sister Ingalls, Natasha Lyonne as recovering heroin addict Nicky Nichols and Uzo Aduba as the sweetly nutty “Crazy Eyes” who comes to Piper’s rescue all have broken out of the pack early.
There’s enough nudity and sexual activity to put this series solidly into the adult category, although somewhat surprisingly Orange Is the New Black is far less salacious than your garden-variety women-in-prison exploitation feature. Instead, this new show presents a diverse slate of complex characters (we learn how they got this way via flashbacks to their lives before prison) delivering sharp, clever dialogue that snaps and stings. Even before the series began streaming this morning, Netflix ordered a second season. Very highly recommended.
From left, Constance Shulman, Kate Mulgrew and Taylor Schilling (back to camera)