“Orange is the New Black” (filmed on location in a women’s prison in Chino, California) is loosely based on the 2010 memoir by Piper Kerman (now an advocate for women prison reform.) Piper Chapman (phenomenal newcomer Taylor Schilling) is a privileged Smith College graduate sentenced to 14 months in prison for the crime of smuggling drugs ten years earlier. Her former lover from that time, fellow drug smuggler Alex Vaus (the pitch-perfect Laura Prepon), is sent to the same prison.
The question: How does one survive in an institution that can kill your soul? Piper is blond, blue-eyed, terrified, but also an outsider because of an upbringing far removed from the world of most of the other inmates, mainly women of color–young, middle-aged, and old–guilty of crimes undeserving of such long prison sentences. Trying to develop some sort of connection with them as well as with the prison guards, Chapman is determined to learn how to survive and, in the learning process, changes in ways both unexpected and welcomed. Her fiancé (Jason Biggs of “American Pie” fame), a journalist, also changes while separated from Piper.
Each of the thirteen episodes flashes on a different inmate’s backstory: her life before prison. These women’s snapshots interweave with Piper, whose story is the main spine of “Orange is the New Black”. Moments of comedy morph so fast into dramatic, painfully dark scenes the viewer feels whiplashed! Each situation has more than one moral choice, and all choices are lose-lose. And every single inmate has to give up something with unbelievably high stakes. There are narrative arcs and character development to surprise even the most attentive viewer. “Orange is the New Black” is story-telling at its finest.
Riveting, spellbinding, and infused with dilemmas at every turn, this new mini-series–written by the superlative Jenji Kohan of “Weeds”—is, I believe, one of the very best ever produced for television at a time when there is a fast-growing bounty of high-quality programs. The opening footage of faces –just eyes and foreheads, then mouths and chins–is like none seen in what Hollywood persuades us to believe human faces are supposed to be like. And the dialog is terse, mesmerizing, and vibrates with nuggets of truth you want to never fail to remember!