‘Orange Is The New Black’ is not the new ‘Oz’

The Netflix dramedy is based on a memoir of one woman’s 15-month sentence

Dave Bartlett talkingtelevision@gmail.com
Published on August 2, 2013
 Some of the cast of the Netflix exclusive dramedy “Orange Is The New Black.” — Submitted photo

If you haven’t checked out the new Netflix original dramedy “Orange Is The New Black,” you’ve been missing out.

Based on the memoir by Piper Kerman and created/adapted by “Weeds” architect Jenji Kohan, the show follows Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) as she serves a

15-month sentence for laundering drug money.

The crime happened 10 years ago when Chapman, in her early 20s, was dating a lesbian heroin smuggler. Her crime was carrying a suitcase full of money across international borders.

However, the stress of what may seem like the simple task to some leads Chapman to leave that life behind when she realizes just what’s at stake.

She meets Larry (Jason Biggs) and goes into business with a friend making skin-care products and becomes a hard-working member of society.

Then, a decade later — just two years shy of the statute of limitations — a summons arrives in the mail, and after the paperwork is done, a 15-month sentence awaits the now-engaged woman.

It’s hard not to compare “Orange Is The New Black” to HBO’s “Oz,” though from what I’ve seen of each, the two are very different.

I’ve only made it through the first season of “Oz,” one of the many shows I simply haven’t had a chance to catch up on, but I was engaged by its raw exploration of maximum security prison life. It’s certainly not something to watch to unwind, but a great, intense drama nonetheless.

“Orange Is The New Black” is

like “Oz” in that it has the same muted lighting, tells its story in a combination of now and then, reveals the back-story of a different character as the side plot of each episode and paints inmates as people — flawed in many ways, but fleshed out so we can understand motivation, regret and other relatable, human traits — as they go about the routine inside.

But though the show has some dark moments, the tone isn’t always so dire and tense as “Oz.” In fact, the show has a lot of humour, even if it is found in the absurdity of circumstance and reality. Overall, it’s simply a well-rounded show that never seems overstated, but believable as Chapman adjusts from citizen to prisoner.

The first episode starts inside the minimum security prison, but quickly flashes back to the days leading up to Chapman’s self-surrender.

There’s also flashbacks to the time of the crime, and introduces Chapman’s former girlfriend Alex Vause (Laura Prepon, of “That 70s Show”).

Inside the prison, you get to meet the guards and inmates as Chapman does, and if you feel overwhelmed by the growing cast, it’s no more than Chapman is dealing with — the big advantage to telling the story largely from a single person’s perspective.

A key character is Sam Healy (Michael J. Harney) Chapman’s case-worker, who “does his paperwork,” which you find out isn’t quite what it sounds like.

He seems like a caring guy, but his motives, like that of some of the other officers, may be less in the interest of the inmates and far more self-serving.

Before turning herself in, Chapman tells Larry that she’s going to work out and get ripped while inside, and may even pick up a craft. And as Chapman tries to adjust during her first few hours, she gets a lot of advice, not all of it good.

She quickly becomes anxious and realizes this isn’t going to be easy — especially when she finds social circles are largely defined along racial lines inside, when she’s used to a yuppie, multicultural, urban setting.

I hate to put a spoiler here, but you almost see it coming when it’s revealed at the end of the first episode that former girlfriend Alex is also serving time at the same prison, complicating Chapman’s vow to make the year inside count.

Things start to go from bad to worse when Chapman has a falling out with Red, the inmate who runs the prison kitchen — played by Kate Mulgrew of “Star Trek: Voyager” fame.

But by the end of the second episode, Piper starts getting creative and uses what she knows as she starts to accept her life for at least the next year or so.

I’m only two episodes into the 13-episode premiere season and am already hooked on the show, and see why it has an 8.7 rating on the Internet Movie Database. And the avclub.com has given it consistent high letter grades, a B+ being the lowest score. It’s already been renewed for a second season, to debut next year.

When I say I’m hooked on this show, I mean I’m bumping it up to my watch-immediately list.

I couple of weeks ago I wrote how “Under The Dome” had potential, which provoked a comment on The Telegram’s website about how the show goes downhill fast. I can’t argue with that, and have already grown bored with the Stephen King adaptation, despite the involvement of Brian K. Vaughan.

Dave Bartlett is a desk editor with

The Telegram. Contact him at dbartlett@thetelegram.com.