What do you mean you don’t want to watch a show about a women’s prison? Okay, so the bummer premise of Orange Is the New Black might make it a tough sell. But the new Netflix series from Weeds creator Jenji Kohan isn’t the bleak bend-over-and-cough drama you might expect. It’s very funny and occasionally quite moving, with a crackerjack cast and provocative insights into the way that race and power and magical chickens function in the penal system. We’ll get to the chickens later, but for now let’s just say that if you’re imagining HBO’s Oz but with more bartering for Bioré strips, stop right there.
Based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, Orange follows Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a preppy blonde who’s doing time in a federal correctional facility for once helping her (now ex-) girlfriend (Laura Prepon) deliver a suitcase full of drug money. The fact that this woman looks like she’s been cut out of a J. Crew catalog makes for good jokes. ”I’m gonna read everything on my Amazon wish list and maybe learn a craft!” she proclaims the night before being locked up. She’s thrilled when her prison shoes look like Toms hipster sneakers, and makes her fiancé (Jason Biggs) promise he won’t watch Mad Men while she’s gone. But Piper’s really just a stand-in for any of us, as she quickly learns that despite her bourgie tastes, she’s not all that dissimilar from any other woman who’s ended up behind bars. Each episode delves into a different inmate’s background, and every new character makes you more invested in this strange micro-society than the last. Natasha Lyonne is fantastic as a grizzled recovering drug addict who’s less tough than she acts; Dascha Polanco radiates sweet vulnerability as a young cartoonist; and Uzo Aduba is hilarious as a goo-goo-eyed lovebird who wants to make Piper her ”prison wife.” The cast is diverse, which leads to some cringe-inducing but realistic conversations about race: White inmates grouse about what the Latinas eat, the Latinas joke about why black women can’t swim, and some of the black prisoners make fun of how white people talk. In one episode, Piper spots a chicken outside, and the prison’s chef (Kate Mulgrew), who thinks the chicken is magic, complains that the black inmates will catch it before she can. “Why?” Piper asks. “Because all black people love chicken?” Retorts the chef: ”Don’t be racist! Because they’re all on heroin. Somebody’s been telling them there’s heroin in the chicken.” It’s totally backward logic, but in a world where good people get locked up and magical chickens fly, it makes perfect sense. B+