Taken from Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same title, Orange is the New Black‘s premise seems made for Jenji Kohan, the force behind Weeds. As the show — which premieres on Netflix 11 July — explores a similar privileged-white-fish-out-of-water territory, it seems poised for some sharp cultural critique. Here that fish is Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), who, a decade ago, participated in her lesbian lover’s (Laura Prepon) international drug ring. Now the feds have caught up with her and so she takes a plea, accepting a 15-month sentence in a minimum-security prison.
The dramedy takes some time in establishing Piper’s bougie pre-prison environs. She manufactures a line of artisanal bath products with her friend Polly (Maria Dizzia) and enjoys a number of indulgences, from juice cleanses and Mad Men to a too-perfect boyfriend, Larry (Jason Biggs). But as these touchstones define her “type,” and so set up her fall, so too they make the transition to her new life in prison feel inevitable rather than explosive.
Once Piper arrives at the federal penitentiary, she is rechristened by her last name, Chapman, and immediately surrounded by a cast of lively characters who run the gamut of skin tones, body types, and sexual orientations. The show confronts this diversity head-on, beginning when Morello (Yael Stone) responds to Chapman’s wide-eyed suspicions of discrimination with a casual explanation: “It’s tribal, not racist.”
The prison’s social world is constructed along these lines, a narrative arrangement that is at once plausible and problematic. Most troubling, the premise insulates Chapman within an enclave of whiteness, relegating darker inmates to the status of comic relief and, of course, instructional occasions, at least for the first few episodes. While Burset (Laverne Cox) and Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) are initially charismatic and compelling, it’s soon clear that they’re in place to guide Chapman — and us — though her distressingly self-centered awakening.
Schilling does her best to make this transformation seem sympathetic and spontaneous, tearing up, laughing, and trembling on cue, but Chapman is exceedingly slight. As her naiveté gives way to a series of expected revelations, your attention drifts to the others in her orbit, including Red (Kate Mulgrew), the all-powerful kitchen head who butts heads with Chapman almost immediately. Flashbacks reveal Red’s former life, when she worked in a small restaurant co-owned with her husband, as well as her involvement with a catty group of Russian expats. Though this storyline offers few surprises, it does grant Mulgrew a chance to ham it up with a thick Russian accent.
Such broad comedy provides some welcome punctuation during most of the meandering present-day plot, only vaguely involving and rarely inciting genuine laughter. Orange is the New Black appears caught in a neutral zone between comedy and drama, missing both the heady rush of the former and the intensity of the latter. For sure, the more time you spend with Chapman’s new compatriots, the richer the show becomes, but it also confuses the show’s focus. Is it about Chapman’s expanding worldview? Is it a substantive critique of classism or racism more generally? Is it a melodrama built on clashing personalities and ambitions?
Even as the show might be all of these things, it doesn’t cohere into an effective whole. While the characters remain thinly rendered types and the situations predictable, Orange is the New Black veers from melodrama to slapstick. The mix might have been volatile or exciting, in particular the many strong performances by a range of women actors, so notoriously underserved on TV and in movies. As much as we might appreciate seeing all of them doing good work, together, we’re also wishing their characters would be as unconventional as this premise.