I'm not a TV critic (yet), and I don't even play one on, well, TV. But this is my site, so indulge me, please. I don't think it's spoiler-y, but if you are worried about that sort of thing, you may want to stop now. The Netflix original series "Orange Is the New Black" was released last July, and I finally got around to watching the 13-episode first season over the last couple of weeks. I do have some criticisms, but let's make one thing clear from the outset: "Orange Is the New Black" is an outstanding show, nearly as good as anything else on television. I just wish it were on HBO.
There is much to love about "Orange." It's the story of a privileged woman -- Piper, played by Taylor Schilling -- who is engaged to be married and starting her own company, when she is charged with crimes committed when she was young and in love with a drug runner. Ultimately, she accepts a plea, and the story begins as she is incarcerated.
It's a brilliant idea for a series, based on Piper Kerman's memoir of the same name. In most respects, it is well-executed. The ensemble cast is filled with great characters, most of whom are nuanced and interesting. Series creator Jenji Kohan displays a deft touch in slowly revealing each character's backstory, and our view of several of the characters (notably Crazy Eyes and Mr. Healy) changes completely within the arc of one season.
There are notable exceptions, however. Two characters -- Natalie Figueroa, a prison administrator, and Mendez, a correctional officer -- are ludicrously over-the-top. "Orange" is a dramedy, so sometimes these characters are played for laughs, but their behavior is so exaggerated that it can be distracting. Often, it's like these two characters were pulled straight out of an Adam Sandler movie. I'm love Billy Madison as much as the next guy, but that's not a compliment.
Jenji Kohan probably should have toned that down, but subtlety doesn't seem to be in her arsenal. To wit: listen to the music that plays whenever Daya (an inmate) and Bennett (a C.O.) are together. It's ridiculous, and worthy of a 1980s Afterschool Special. And they play it Every. Single. Time. Before "Orange," Kohan was known primarily for the Showtime series "Weeds." I've never seen a single episode of "Weeds," so I can't compare, but I have real questions about some of the creative decisions on this show. (Also, I could do without the Jason Biggs-inspired American Pie inside jokes.) That's why I mentioned HBO above; in the best HBO original dramas, these little wrinkles have all been ironed out. (Then again, it's still the first season for "Orange" so there is time.)
When looking at the big picture, however, those are very small quibbles. In most respects, Kohan has put together a captivating portrait of life inside a women's prison. Piper is a fascinating character study, but she is arguably the least compelling personality on the show. Taystee Jefferson may be my favorite character, but the entire group of inmates -- Alex, Yoga Jones, track star Janae Watson, Sister Ingalls, Big Boo, and especially the Bible-toting meth-head Pennsatucky -- are each engaging in their own way. I'm not sure how Kohan was able to make each of them a fully-formed character in only 13 episodes (the flashbacks to life before prison helped), but it works.
I was happy to be able to watch the entire season over two weeks, one episode a night, thanks to the Netflix model of distribution, but "Orange" is a series that would have benefited from the traditional model. At the end of each episode, I didn't like the idea of waiting until the following night to see what would happen next (alas, my wife goes to sleep early, and she was just as engaged with the series as I). Imagine waiting a full week to see how Piper was going to resolve whatever issues were still lingering from the episode before. It's a series that could have built even more buzz than it actually did by giving each episode some water cooler time.
Either way, I am definitely looking forward to the second season, especially after the eye-popping cliffhanger at the end of season one's final episode. "Orange" isn't as good as "Mad Men" or "Sherlock," but it's just a cut below. Which means that it's better than most everything else on television (or whatever delivery device you prefer).