TV review: “Orange is the New Black” is the new elite

By Columbus Alive
From the August 1, 2013 edition

It’s been a big year for Netflix. “House of Cards” was nominated for a number of Emmys. Resurrecting “Arrested Development” was a boon fans. Netflix also released two other original series, “The Fall” (good) and “Hemlock Grove” (bad)Plus, it partnered with the Sundance Channel to get first crack at “Top of the Lake,” one of the year’s best.

Even after all that, nothing compares to “Orange is the New Black.” Created by veteran television writer Jenji Kohan (“Weeds”), “Orange” didn’t receive as much buzz as other Netflix Originals. See, Kohn doesn’t carry the cachet of David Fincher or Kevin Spacey from “House of Cards” or the cult fandom of “Arrested Development.” hat Kohn does have is one of the best new shows in a long time.

After barreling through “Orange” in a week or so — don’t worry, this is a spoiler-free review — I was utterly floored by how good it started, and how it only got better. I had some issues with the finale, but nothing that diminishes the powerful writing and performances within these 13 episodes

Based off the similarly titled memoir by Piper Kerman, “Orange” is the story of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) and her time in federal prison. Piper winds up there after pleading out transporting rug money — once — for her then-girlfriend Alex (Laura Prepon)She must forgo comfortable life with fianc Larry (Jason Biggs) and artisanal soap company for unpleasantshowers, getting starvedout and objectionable male guards.

But as inmate counselor Sam (Michael Harney) tells Piper in the opener, “This isn’t ‘Oz.’” There is violence on “Orange,” justnot as graphic or exploitative as the HBO prison drama. Same goes for the sex — this isn’t Skinemax, either.

While Piper is the center, the biggest strength ensemble cast and how it gets fleshed out. All the inmates have backstories — told through flashbacks from before being incarceratedthat strengthen already fascinating characters. The flashbacks are as good, or better than anything from “Lost” and the diversity and density of the cast is reminiscent of “The Wire.” Yes, “Orange” deserve to be mentioned with thoseseries.

Besides the engrossing narrative and cast, what’s most impressive is how “Orange” makes the audience think. Very few shows have examined gender dynamics, class and race issues and even love and trust with such dexterity and intelligence.

The end result of this careful storytelling is well-rounded characters you’ll identify with, even though you have nothing in common. You’re wrapped up their lives — their laughs and cries, wins and hardships — and you come out transformed, hat’s hard to shake.

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“Orange is the New Black”

Streaming on Netflix

4 stars