TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Netflix recently unveiled its newest exclusive TV series - "Orange is the New Black," created by Jenji Kohan, the creator of the Showtime series "Weeds." Last week, Netflix made all 13, one-hour episodes of the first season of "Orange is the New Black" available for streaming. And our TV critic David Bianculli spent the weekend watching them all. Here's his review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Netflix's newest original series, "Orange is the New Black," has two important TV predecessors. One is HBO's "Oz," the 1997 men-in-prison drama from Tom Fontana that paved the way for HBO's "The Sopranos." The other is Showtime's "Weeds," which in 2009 put its pot-selling protagonist behind bars for most of Season 6. The creator of "Weeds," Jenji Kohan, clearly enjoyed the setting of a women's prison as fertile ground for both comedy and drama.
Her new series, "Orange is the New Black," goes back behind bars but in a way that's more ambitious and ultimately, more impressive than "Weeds." "Weeds" was played mostly for laughs. "Oz" was so serious and so ominous, it was scary. "Orange" is somewhere in between. Some of it is funny, but some of its scenes - and many of its characters - stick with you. The series is based on a memoir by Piper Kerman, whose character in "Orange" is named Piper Chapman.
Each episode contains flashbacks that provide insight into the past of a different character, a structure familiar from "Lost" and before that, from "Oz." But while the flashbacks are intriguing and increasingly surprising, it's the scenes set in the present - as Piper enters the prison system - that really draw you in.
Taylor Schilling, whose only other significant TV role was as Nurse Veronica on NBC's "Mercy" series four years ago, stars as Piper Chapman. She displays more than enough vulnerability to elicit our empathy even though she is, indeed, a criminal; though in these days, when we end up rooting for the likes of Tony Soprano and Walter White, Piper hardly seems in the same league.
Here's Piper on her first day in prison, meeting her assigned counselor, Sam Healy, played by Michael Harney. Fans of "Weeds" may remember him as that show's Detective Mitch. He's looking over her file, curious as to how a well-to-do, 32-year-old, white woman ended up in jail.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK")
MICHAEL HARNEY: (As Sam Healy) Are you OK?
TAYLOR SCHILLING: (As Piper Chapman) Fine, I guess.
HARNEY: (As Sam) What's poppy?
SCHILLING: (As Piper) Poppy. It's a back-product sign I'd started with my friend Polly - Polly and Piper, Poppy. We're going to be in Barneys.
HARNEY: (As Sam) Barneys?
SCHILLING: (As Piper) It's a nice store.
HARNEY: (As Sam) It's a pretty big case, criminal conspiracy.
SCHILLING: (As Piper) That's what they charged me with. I carried a suitcase of money, drug money - once, 10 years ago.
HARNEY: (As Sam) What's the statute of limitations on that?
SCHILLING: (As Piper) Twelve years.
HARNEY: (As Sam) That's tough.
SCHILLING: (As Piper) Well, I did it that one time, 10 years ago.
HARNEY: (As Sam) What did your lawyer say?
SCHILLING: (As Piper) He said with the mandatory minimums with drug crimes, he wouldn't recommend risking a trial. So I pleaded out.
HARNEY: (As Sam) And here you are.
SCHILLING: (As Piper) Here I am.
BIANCULLI: When Piper goes through her first day - meeting her bunkmates, going to the cafeteria - every step is tricky. If she befriends the wrong person or says the wrong thing, which she does a lot, the consequences can be severe. We, as the audience, are taken along and experience the same steep learning curve.
By Episode 3, we're as familiar with the nightly headcount routine as Piper is. And by the end of these 13 episodes, we not only know all the characters in this very large, very diverse ensemble comedy-drama, we feel for them too, and that's quite an achievement.
The cast is so large, singling out not only a few for specific praise is tough. But the two biggest names in "Orange is the New Black" deserve credit for embodying characters that shatter the memories of their most famous TV roles. Kate Mulgrew, who played Capt. Janeway on "Star Trek Voyager," is almost unrecognizable - and absolutely riveting - as Red, the proud Russian inmate who runs the commissary. And Laura Prepon, as Piper's former drug-smuggling, lesbian lover, obliterates all traces of the sweet Midwestern teen she played on "That '70s Show."
But there are plenty of others too - from Jason Biggs, as Piper's current boyfriend; to Michelle Hurst, as a particularly imposing prisoner named Ms. Claudette. Each episode deepens our knowledge of these characters so much so that by the end of the first 13 episodes, they're all three-dimensional - and more than a little haunting. And each episode ends with a cliffhanger that has you eager to see the next show immediately, which on Netflix you can do.
But when I watched all of Season 1 of "Orange is the New Black," I wasn't just binge viewing, I was binge reviewing. And my verdict, after all that, is that Netflix has indeed done it again. After "House of Cards" and "Arrested Development," "Orange is the New Black" is its third triumph this year.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching, and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. I'm Terry Gross.