In the past couple of years, Netflix has shown that not only are they a great provider of movies to millions of people, but also that they can produce TV shows to rival that of any produced by network or cable channels. Not only have they given us the great “House of Cards,” which made history by being the first streaming show to be nominated for the Best Drama Emmy, but later in the same year, they also delivered the intriguing prison comedy-drama “Orange is the New Black,” which has been getting raves all of its own.
Their latter hit follows the adventures of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), an average woman with a fiancée, who gets sent to prison because of her small part in a drug ring. Prior to settling down for a new life with her soon-to-be-husband Larry (Jason Biggs), her life was a little different in that she was attracted to a woman by the name of Alex (Laura Prepon), who flew her all over the world as part of the drug business. As you can no doubt guess, they were caught, leading to both of them being sent to a women’s correctional facility in upstate New York.
That’s right, Piper is forced to put up with her former girlfriend as she serves her 15-month sentence, but not only that, she must quickly get used to the rules if she wants to survive her stay. Joining her is prison is a bizarre group of characters that includes Red (Kate Mulgrew), the head cook that she manages to anger on her first day in, Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba), a seemingly crazy woman who wants Piper to be her wife, Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst), a mysterious inmate who is very strict about keeping things clean, and Tiffany (Taryn Manning), a religious nut who becomes Piper’s biggest enemy.
Aside from the other inmates, there’s also the prison staff that she has to put up with, including her counselor, Sam Healy (Michael Harney), who starts off as her friend, but slowly becomes something of an adversary, Mendez (Pablo Schreiber), drug-smuggler and the toughest of the prison guards, and Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow), one of the heads of the prison who really hates it when something goes wrong. As Piper’s stay goes on, she soon finds that it’s not as easy as keeping to yourself and trying to avoid trouble, especially since trouble always seems to find her no matter what she does. A prison wife, lesbian activity, a chicken that may or may not be real; these are just average days at the Litchfield Correctional Facility.
A successful film that takes place in a prison is a very hard thing to pull off, so an attempt to set an entire TV show in one almost seems like an act of madness, despite the success of “Oz” in the past. In order for something like this to work, you have to make absolutely sure that the story and characters are compelling enough, something that I think “Orange is the New Black” is quite successful at. The characters are an eclectic variety that always keeps the show feeling fresh and there’s always something strange going on as Piper’s stay continues, ranging from the first few days in which she angers Red the cook and is denied food to the last few episodes of the season in which a fellow inmate decides that Piper must die.
The show’s main weak point is when it tries to tell the backstory of the various supporting characters. These are given in brief vignettes that only really serve to tell us what they did to get put away. They don’t delve into the characters enough to make them worthwhile, so they end up feeling more like distractions than anything else. It gets to the point where you feel that if they aren’t going to explore the characters in a deeper manner, then they should just leave these parts out in order to concentrate on the present day in the prison, which contains by far the more intriguing part of the show. We pretty much learn everything we need to know about the characters anyway, at least enough to where the characters are developed and cared about.
In addition to what’s going on in the prison, the show also deals with Piper’s relationship with her fiancée, who is doing his best to wait for her to get out so that they can finally marry. He does eventually learn that Piper is locked away with her former girlfriend, which obviously creates a large amount of concern, but he continues to stand by her. He even finds a little success due to Piper’s incarceration in the way of writing an article about her and going on NPR to discuss their “long-distance relationship,” the latter of which creates quite a stir due to the things Larry reveals on the air.
On Piper’s side, things become strained as she realizes that her feelings for Alex aren’t quite gone yet, despite her being the reason her life has fallen into such turmoil. The longer she is forced to stay away from Larry, the more Piper feels the need for human contact, which could spoil everything that she has tried to do in regards to settling down for her new life. Not only that, but it could also get her into serious trouble in prison should the guards find out about it.
It’s drama like this, on top of the zanier events, that really help drive the show and keep it engaging. Such a mix helps it from becoming too light or too heavy-handed. When you throw in a group of characters who are quite weird, and yet somehow rather likable, you get a show that slowly grabs hold of you and only occasionally becomes distracted with backstory. “Orange is the New Black” may have seemed like a risky idea, but as I mentioned earlier, there’s hardly a dull day to be had in this prison, and because of that, it succeeds much better than one might expect.
The 13-episode first season of “Orange is the New Black” is presented in a 1.78:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of outstanding quality. Most of it may take place in the drab confines of the prison, but that doesn’t stop the picture from being crystal clear and perfectly sharp throughout. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is very soft, so like with all other Blu-rays that suffer from this same problem, a volume adjustment will have to be made, but once that’s done, you get to experience audio quality to match the terrific video.
New Kid on the Cell Block, Mother Hen: Red Runs the Coop, It’s Tribal, and Prison Rules: These are four brief featurettes that take a look behind the scenes of the show through interviews with the cast and crew. They don’t go into too much depth, but they are still worth watching for the insights given by the interviewees.
Two Audio Commentaries: A pair of commentary tracks for the first and last episodes of the season that feature the producers behind the show. They’re worth listening to if you’re interested in getting a little more behind the scenes info.
Gag Reel: About six minutes of outtakes that are good for a laugh or two.
“Orange is the New Black” succeeds as a compelling series thanks to a fascinating set of characters and a story that continually grabs the viewers’ attention with multiple twists and turns. This season one set features all 13 episodes in excellent quality with a decent selection of special features, making this a release that’s worth picking up and getting lost in just in time for the season two premiere in June.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.
Recent Blu-ray/DVD releases: Star Trek: Enterprise - Season Four, The Legend of Hercules, Dead Shadows, Sorcerer, Copperhead, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Best of Bogart Collection, Beneath, American Hustle, Kill Your Darlings, The Slumber Party Massacre, Inside Llewyn Davis, In Fear, Oldboy (2013), Cold Comes the Night, Gravity
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