You’ve got time.
by Megan Smith
It’s 3 a.m. and Netflix is telling me that my next episode of Orange Is the New Black will automatically play in 15 seconds. My eyes are incredibly droopy, but I can’t look away. Just one more episode, I tell myself. Well, like many of you Netflix addicts can attest, one more episode became three more episodes, and before I knew it, I had watched all 13 episodes of Orange’s first season over the span of a few days. Was it worth the lack of sleep and several extra cups of coffee it took to wake up in the morning? Absolutely. Orange Is the New Black is just that phenomenal.
Orange follows Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), the blonde, newly engaged Brooklyn yuppie, as her world is turned upside down after skeletons in the closet come back to haunt her, landing her a 15-month sentence in an all-women’s prison, Litchfield Penitentiary. Created by Jenji Kohan (Weeds), Orange has been hailed by critics as “the best of the Netflix originals so far.” The series, which is based on a memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman, was renewed for a second season before the first even premiered in July 2013.
Prior to prison, Piper is the definition of a “WASP” with “first-world problems.” She makes artisanal bath products with her best friend (they got into Barney’s), goes on juice cleanses with her fiancé, Larry (Jason Briggs), and shops organically. Piper’s main worry is making sure Larry doesn’t watch Mad Men without her.
But in her earlier, “carefree” days, Piper wasn’t so predictable. She had an intense love affair with a lesbian drug trafficker, the mysterious and sexy Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), and occasionally carried drug money for her. Ten years later (after the two had split), Alex is caught and Piper is named as a conspirator—right before the statute of limitations runs out.
After she self-surrenders at Litchfield, missing Mad Men turns out to be the least of Piper’s worries. From having to wear sanitary napkins as shower shoes to avoid the “wicked fungus” until her commissary money arrives, to almost being starved out by the kitchen staff as a result of insulting head cook Red’s (Kate Mulgrew) food, Piper’s adjustment to prison life isn’t easy. And to top things off, Alex is placed at the same prison.
Although we’re initially introduced to the prison system through Piper’s eyes, her story turns out to be one of the least interesting. The other colorful, dynamic, and powerful inmates, in my opinion, steal the show. We meet Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne), the lesbian ex-drug addict who puts up walls in order to protect herself emotionally—especially from fellow inmate Morello (Yael Stone), her lover who vows to return to her boyfriend upon her release. We meet George “Pornstache” Mendez (Pablo Schreiber), the corrupt officer who smuggles contraband into the prison for sexual favors. And of course, we meet Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox), the transwoman ex-fireman who had to balance transitioning with her role as spouse to her wife and parent to her son. We learn Sophia ended up in Litchfield after stealing credit card numbers to finance her transition. (Fun fact: Cox’s twin brother, musician M. Lamar, plays Sophia pre-transition on the show. Also, shout-out to Netflix for casting an actual transwoman of color to play the role of a transwoman of color.)
Orange also has a lot of queer lady-loving going on, and I’m not complaining. The first episode starts with a flashback to Alex and Piper’s dating days where the two share a kiss while they’re in the shower. “The first scene we shot together is when we get naked in the shower . . . it was like, ‘Hey, nice to see you again,’ because I just met her once during the reading, and then we jumped into the shower,” Prepon told Canada.com. “And it was amazing, we had such good chemistry.”
Once reunited in prison, the sexual tension between Alex and Piper escalates until the two ultimately end up having sex in the prison’s chapel. Like Alex says, in prison there’s not a lot of location options. From then on out, the two fall back into their same passionate love affair—physically and emotionally—with the added complications of Piper being engaged to a man this time around.
Season one leaves us with a cliffhanger—in a violent fight between Piper and ex-meth head, now born-again Christian inmate Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett (Taryn Manning). Pennsatucky—whose mental stability is questionable at best—is convinced she has been chosen by God to kill Piper, who she has deemed unworthy of God’s love.
Like most shows, Orange is not perfect, and many have criticized its representations of race and class. However, there is no denying the show’s female-dominated cast is one of the most diverse out there, and, needless to say, the show passes the Bechdel test.
I, for one, cannot wait until all episodes of season two launch on Netflix on June 6. Until then, I’ll be resting up to prepare for my next all-night watch-a-thon—and you should, too.
Season one of Orange Is the New Black is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Lionsgate Home Entertainment (lionsgate.com).