Review: 'Orange is the New Black' offers an eye-opening look at prison

2013-07-07T18:00:00Z 2014-05-01T11:53:05Z Review: 'Orange is the New Black' offers an eye-opening look at prisonBRUCE MILLER bmiller@siouxcityjournal.com Sioux City Journal

A year in prison would bring you, what? Time for reading? Exercising? Crafts projects?

That's what Piper Chapman thinks before she goes in for her part in a drug-smuggling scheme. And then? Prison unfolds as a whole new world, hardly the place where you can clear your mind and kick back.

In "Orange is the New Black," producer Jenji Kohan gives us a glimpse of the life Nancy Botwin might have led in her previous series "Weeds."

Instead, it's the domain of a suburban bride-to-be who just got in with the wrong crowd. Aiding a friend's illegal activity, she was sentenced to 15 months in prison. And now? Piper's paying the piper.

As the shocked tour guide, Taylor Schilling brings all the disgust and horror we would, particularly since this country-club prison isn't exactly posh. Using maxi-pads for shower shoes, she meets the regulars and suffers the wrath of Red (Kate Mulgrew), the inmate in charge of the kitchen. The food, she politely offers, isn't all that good. Red cuts her off and, for days, Piper experiences more than just a cleanse.

Like "Oz," another prison-based drama, "Orange is the New Black" shows there's a different code, a new way of life to follow. Piper draws on her past, makes a peace offering and discovers how she, too, can make like Martha Stewart and fit in.

Kohen, basing her series on Piper Kerman's memoir, immediately gives us characters worth watching. Besides Red, there's a yoga instructor (beautifully played by Constance Schulman), a crazy woman, several moms and a subculture devoted to style.

The cells? They're hardly something out of Elle Decor but they do come with a few rules -- like "sleep on top of your bed, not in it."

Schilling handles the world like a true explorer. She drops plenty of outside references (prison shoes are a lot like Tom's, she says) and slowly discovers how to find her place.

In flashbacks, we learn how she got there and what kind of life she's leaving behind. Jason Biggs plays her fiance; Laura Prepon is the woman who got her in trouble. Throw in assorted friends and relatives and it's easy to see how remote a life in orange can be.

Debuting this week on Netflix, the series will be available, like "Arrested Development," for binge-viewing. But take your time with it. "Orange is the New Black" has moments you'll want to savor and reference. Absorbing all of it at once may feel like you're actually behind bars.

Already renewed for a second season (before it even debuts), the drama proves there's a place for television auteurs -- a home where meddling isn't an everyday thing.

It takes advantage of cable's extremes as well (look for the nudity and profanity) and gives us enough fear factor to stay out of trouble.

Mulgrew (who gets her own back story in the second episode) is Emmy worthy as the rough Red. She knows how to work the oh-so-dim guards and prison personnel, suggesting the inmates do run this asylum.

A killer set of abs? That may come in due time. But, for now, it's Piper's attitude adjustment that bears watching.

If she gets out of this hell hole without being scarred, it'll be a miracle. "Orange is the New Black" is TV that'll have you talking for days.

All 13 episodes of "Orange is the New Black" will be available Thursday on Netflix.

Copyright 2015 Sioux City Journal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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