With season two starting June 6, now is the perfect time to binge Netflix’s first season of Orange Is the New Black — 13 episodes of the small-budget, straight-to-streaming show that quickly became a cultural phenomenon in 2013.
Before you change into your most comfy jumpsuit, however, here’s what you need to know to prepare yourself for OITNB lockdown.
What’s the premise? A thirty-something New Yorker adjusts to her 15-month prison sentence, after a long-ago lesbian affair with an international drug smuggler catches up with her.
What’s it like? Imagine if Sex in the City were set in Oz — not the merry old land with wizards, witches, and munchkins, but HBO’s concrete jungle of gangsters, rapists, thieves, drug lords, and murderers. Billed most often as a “dramedy,” Orange Is the New Black uses wry humor in moments of utter despair while Litchfield Correctional Facility’s token yuppie, Piper Chapman, settles into her unwelcoming new digs. With a unique mostly-female ensemble, Orange fills in the blanks of many of the inmates’ pasts through compelling flashbacks, similar to Lost or The Returned. The flashbacks serve to show the circumstances — cultural expectations, economic limitations, and plain ol’ bad decisions — that brought this diverse group of women to the suburban New York prison, while giving the viewer the occasional furlough from its gray walls. Remarkably, it takes very little time for Orange Is the New Black to make life behind bars the new normal, and as Piper gradually lets go of her Whole Foods-shopping, artisanal soap-making former self, you’re right there with her.
How long will it take? When Netflix releases new seasons of its original programs, it puts all the episodes out on a Friday, knowing that most people will binge the whole thing over a weekend. Orange Is the New Black is no exception, so expect to spend a weekend in stir, watching the 13 hour-long episodes.
What do the critics think? Certified Fresh at 90 percent on the Tomatometer, season one of Orange Is the New Black was a critics’ darling in 2013. Of its highly binge-able nature, Brian Moylan of The Guardian wrote, “Orange Is the New Black will be making people cancel their weekend plans so they can find out what happens to these fascinating and desperate women.” And Willa Paskin of Salon.com said, “I want to tell you how much you should go and watch it, but I am in a hurry to get back to watching it myself, because watching Orange Is the New Black is all I want to do.” Why are the critics so wrapped up in this show? Matthew Gilbert of The Boston Globe explained it in a nutshell: “Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black is a funny, dramatically sound, poignant, and thoroughly addictive adventure through a bleak looking glass.”
Why should I watch this? Even though the show’s primary focus is the story of Piper Chapman, the diverse ensemble makes Orange Is the New Black a stand-out series right now. The women of Litchfield come in every shade and shape. They are straight, gay, bi, and transgender; rich and poor; black, white, Latino and Asian; young and old. Addicted to money, sex, drugs, and Jesus, the mix of women in Orange strike just the right balance of scary and silly, with funny, bizarre personalities underscoring the otherwise bleak life of federal prison. Any woman who watches Orange will probably find herself imagining how she would navigate similar circumstances. Any man will probably find himself shocked at how women function in a world of their own — granted, one inhabited entirely of convicted criminals.
What’s my next step? Orange Is the New Black was created by Jenji Kohan, who was also behind Showtime’s comedy-drama Weeds, also about an unlikely female criminal. For another tragi-comic look at an institutional existence, check out HBO’s new series Getting On, about a geriatric ward in a hospital, and also Milos Forman’s classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which has one of the most memorable ensembles in film history. Another possible follow-up to Orange is Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects, although you’ll have to watch it to see why. Across the pond, the Brits have made a number of series that serve as worthy follow-ups to Orange, most notably with ITV’s Bad Girls and BBC-One’s Prisoners’ Wives. If you find that you can’t adjust to life on the outside, you might also give the granddaddies of prison films a weekend marathon and include Escape from Alcatraz, The Shawshank Redemption, and Cool Hand Luke. Also, Orange Is the New Black is based on the memoir by the real-life Piper: Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman.