With characters legitimately called Pornstache and Crazy Eyes, Netflix seems to beg that viewers pay more attention to character development than plot in their latest web series, Orange Is the New Black. Ask anybody who marathoned the show the day it premiered which character lit up the laptop, though, and I’d wager you’d get a different response each time. Because even though Meg Ryan doppelgänger Taylor Schilling technically stars as Piper Chapman, she has a tough time maintaining the spotlight alongside a cast that seems intentionally built to steal scenes. Maybe that’s her true retribution for smuggling drug money, since the overall takeaway from the show’s prison commentary seems to be that prison ain’t that bad. At one point, Chapman even gushes romantically that she feels 23 all over again.
It’s this curious line that the show walks – between shock scenes like faked suicides, knifings and lesbian bullying and schmaltz scenes like the Christmas pageant, the beauty shop and pretty much every conversation between Chapman and ex-girlfriend-slash-former accomplice Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) – that makes the premise of each episode a little hard to swallow. With a 15-month sentence in a low-security prison, assuredly there would be plenty of time for sentimental moments and, as Chapman calls her renewed affair with Vause, “affectionate” relationships, as well as the nerve-shattering reality checks ordinary folks would expect (especially the season’s concluding scene, although I think Schilling needs to take a course in crazy eyes). But the show is best enjoyed by ignoring both elements and giving into the simpler pleasure of snappy dialogue and engrossing character insights.
This is not to say that Orange Is the New Black is without substance, but lines like “You snap back to being important to each other because you still are” and “Adventure is just a hardship with an inflated sense of self” are as dully preachy as Pennsatucky (the born-again ex-meth addict played by Taryn Manning), and just don’t have the emotional depth that Miss Claudette (the very dignified human trafficker portrayed by Michelle Hurst) conveys in one embrace shared with her first-ever visitor. Other standouts from the series include Red, the violently proud cook (Kate Mulgrew, captaining a prison kitchen instead of the U.S.S. Voyager) and the NPR-bashing hilarity that ensues any time Taystee (Danielle Brooks) and Poussey (Samira Wiley) are in the same room. Whichever character pulls you in, it’s highly likely you’ll be bumping the series back up in your queue when the show returns in 2014 for a confirmed second season.
Which brings me to this jealous observation: Netflix sure does know how to take “risks.” First they got a Golden Globe-winning director (David Fincher) and a two-time Academy Award-winning star (Kevin Spacey) to woo the devout movie-going crowd into skipping the cinema for a beat to play out House of Cards. Then they flirted with the young crowd by bringing on up-and-coming Splat Pack filmmaker Eli Roth (Cabin Fever) to produce the gory show Hemlock Grove, starring nerd-bait Bond girl and X-Men star Famke Janssen. And now, there’s Orange Is the New Black, a bisexual character study with Showtime hotshot Jenji Kohan at the helm.
If these are risks, I say invest now, because each of these straight-to-web series met critical acclaim (how could they not?!) and seems to solidify Netflix as a direct competitor to cable networks.