Nancy Botwin, the pot-dealing single mom of Showtime's "Weeds," changed the rules for TV's female protagonists. Now her creator, Jenji Kohan, is back with an even darker, funnier tale of another woman's brush with American criminality.
"Orange is the New Black" is based on the memoir of Piper Kerman, whose post-college phase as a courier for heroin dealers took a decade to catch up with her. Don't let the flippant title fool you: "Orange" is scary, smart and relevant, and it will make you wonder why no one thought to give the "Oz" formula a dose of estrogen before now.
For Netflix's streaming-only series, Kerman has been renamed Piper Chapman and brought to life by Taylor Schilling, who starred in the best-forgotten Nicholas Sparks flick "The Lucky One." Here, Schilling manages to stitch together a likable fish-out-of-water persona from equal parts manic pixie, spoiled idealist and defiant survivor.
On the Brooklyn trust-fund continuum, Chapman is closer to yuppie than to hipster when she is named a co-conspirator in an international heroin ring. She leaves behind Alex (Laura Prepon), the lover who introduced her to crime's adrenaline rush, for a future marketing herb-scented soaps.
Instead of risking trial, she takes a deal for 15 months at Club Fed. It doesn't take long for her to freak out once she's on the inside.
"I'm wearing granny panties and I've only spoken to white people," she babbles at her fiance, Larry, on visiting day. "And you're not supposed to eat the pudding because it's been to Desert Storm."
Not realizing that she's being hazed and starved, Larry (Jason Biggs) tries to cheer her up. "You look great. Your face is all cheekbone-y."
We get to see happier times with Larry, back when they were doing a weeklong lemon juice / cayenne pepper cleanse as a couple. Now, instead of having phone sex, Larry describes heirloom tomatoes and bulk almonds from Whole Foods.
The scripts smuggle in sharp-edged consumer-culture references with abandon. When Chapman is issued her institutional canvas slippers, she lights up: "They're like Toms!" She reads "Gone Girl" in the yard and declares it "almost good."
It's that precious, entitled attitude that keeps getting Chapman in trouble with the other inmates. They call her "Taylor Swift" and cut off locks of her hair to make extensions.
Eventually, Chapman retreats to her mattress, sobbing and making artisanal bath products from contraband produce and cocoa butter. Martha Stewart might as well be sharing her cell. It's not exactly "Midnight Express" in Litchfield, the show's fictional penitentiary, but the show does expand on Kerman's experiences, adding characters and levels of conflict.
"Every sentence is a story," the show's posters declare. And that's the rhythm "Orange" dances to: one inmate backstory per 50-minute episode, revealed in flashbacks and whispered rumors.
"Weeds" fans will not be surprised to hear that "Orange" gets in our faces about race, religion and class, not to mention America's justice system. The male caretakers and guards are a terrifying potpourri of sexual predators, hapless bureaucrats and condescending sociopaths. The worst of them, a guard portrayed by Pablo Schreiber of "The Wire," is just called "Pornstache," even in the ending credits.
But Litchfield's inmates aren't just disenfranchised mouthpieces designed to trigger middle-class guilt. (Well, most of them aren't.) It's just too bad we had to go to jail with a pretty white girl to find this many good roles for women of varied colors, ages and shapes.
Taystee (Danielle Brooks), one of the first black inmates to interact with Chapman, seems to fill the expected role of the sassy, plus-sized jokester - until she doesn't. The other minorities at Litchfield will soon defy Chapman's and our notions of what put them there.
"Maxi pads with wings are back in the commissary," a voice drones over the PA system. The deadpan bulletins about mealtimes and bad movies are a nod to the announcements that tied together the narrative threads of "M*A*S*H."
It's a good device for a show that will rotate directors, such as Jodie Foster, Andrew McCarthy and Matthew Penn, and Netflix already has ordered a second season for 2014.
After the success of "House of Cards," "Orange is the New Black" should establish Netflix as a destination for discerning viewers who want to binge-watch more great shows on their own time.
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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All 13 episodes of the first season are available Thursday on Netflix.