As the fourth series in Netflix’s attempt to change television and the world as we know it, “Orange Is the New Black” may feel a bit like the last bridesmaid, trailing in the petal-strewn wake of “House of Cards” and “Arrested Development.” But as any rom-com addict knows, it’s precisely that gal, the one bringing up the rear with the broken heel and the tilted headdress, who winds up stealing the show.
And so it may be with “Orange Is the New Black.” Jenji Kohan’s fine and feisty adaptation of Piper Kerman’s memoir, which chronicled Kerman’s yearlong stint in federal prison, may not have the star power of “House of Cards.” But a women’s prison is certainly a fresher landscape than power-mad D.C. And the distance between the frenzied expectations of “Arrested Development” and its very mixed reception clears a nice space for a comedy that is a deceptively ambitious mix of the innovative and the dependable. Netflix’s fourth series is the horror thriller “Hemlock Grove.”
In the beginning, “Orange” plays up the dependable. The “yupper” middle class is always fun to toy with and Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) is no exception. A waify blond with a nice Jewish boyfriend named Larry (Jason Biggs), Piper is so Style section she has a fledgling artisanal soap business with her sister. (“We’re in Barneys,” she tells anyone who will listen.)
She also has a secret. In college, Piper had an affair with (gasp) a woman, Alex (Laura Prepon), who was (double and slightly doubtful gasp) a drug dealer. During a European vacation, Piper once picked up a big bag of money from an airport. So now she’s going to jail.
That the crime is played down as an essentially benign lapse in judgment, and that Alex is one of the hotter, smarter drug dealers ever invented is immediately annoying. But the deft footwork of both Schilling and Kohan make it easy to overlook this small narrative cheat as we are launched into a well-executed rendition of the privileged-fish-out-of-water story line.
Although Piper has done all the reading and made certain fitness resolutions — “I’m going to get ripped,” she tells Larry, who responds by proposing to her — she is utterly unprepared for a life in which she has no privacy, no amenities and no control. “Private Benjamin” goes to jail.
It’s always amusing, and uncomfortably revealing, to watch a middle-class white American stripped of the privileges too often considered rights. The phone, the money, the shoes, even the language — Piper literally does not know how to communicate in a way that does not assume equality.
But this is a comedy, so there’s a limit. “This isn’t ‘Oz,’” Piper is assured by Lorna (Yael Stone), an inmate who, with her lipstick and cute haircut, seems much more “Grease” than “Caged Heat.”
The women-in-prison genre has traditionally served as a voyeuristic sexual exercise, either violent or erotic — there is no “Cool Hand Luke” or “Green Mile” for gals. Kohan quickly, and firmly, acknowledges the fetish potential with guards who run the (mild) gamut of obsession — with lesbians, with dominance — before moving on. Yes, many inmates have sex, with each other and with themselves. And, yes, it’s graphic and often overlong, but it’s never gratuitous.
Because “Orange Is the New Black” is not just about a slightly deluded Everywoman renegotiating her understanding of the universe, it’s about the fact that Piper is most decidedly not Everywoman, a revelation that may take television executives by surprise. Piper quickly lands on the bad side of the head cook (Kate Mulgrew) who runs the cellblock like a Russian mobster, and then finds herself entangled with a possessive black woman called “Crazy Eyes.” Eventually, she’s bunkmates with a Haitian woman (Michelle Hurst) whose rumored crimes scare everyone, including the very swaggering butch played by the always fabulous Lea DeLaria.
In addition to Lorna, a host of other women try to help Piper survive, including a promiscuous but kindly former junkie (Natasha Lyonne), a male to female transsexual (Laverne Cox), a young Latina (Dascha Polanco) who develops a crush on a guard, a cheerful yoga instructor and an activist nun.
That it takes a tale set in prison, appearing on Netflix, to display the most racially diverse cast in a show not created by Shonda Rhimes says a lot about the limitations of even this golden age of television.
We still do not “forgive” female leads the crimes allowed our male antiheroes — hideous violence, rampant promiscuity — which is why “Orange” is a comedy and the general likability factor on this particular cellblock is pretty high side for the slam. “The Wire’s” Snoop would definitely not fit in. But this is the most impressive group of female characters ever assembled in a series, and it’s not just window-dressing; each woman has a story and that story will be told.
Netflix may wind up changing the world after all.
‘Orange Is the New Black’
When: Starting Thursday
Rating: Not Rated