They lend themselves so well to episodic television: high emotions, larger-than-life characters, jeopardy, sudden arrivals and exits of characters plus all kinds of power games. Prisoner, Oz, Wentworth, Bad Girls, and Prison Break have all been popular hits.
The latest is Orange is the New Black by Jenji Kohan (Weeds).
The title pertains to the colour of the prison uniforms worn by new inmates. In the first episode of this US drama it’s Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) sporting the new attire, and effectively becoming the audience’s eyes into a women’s federal prison in Litchfield, New York.
She seems like the perfect wife to Larry (Jason Biggs), attractive, intelligent, confident. So it’s perplexing to see her voluntarily checking into the prison. What could she have possibly done?
Suffice to say she has no experience behind bars and her stint isn’t likely to be a short one. On the inside everyone is referred to by surname. The shower floors are riddled with germs. There’s same-sex acts behind closed doors. Racial tension and violence simmer. And trust is a commodity easily exchanged.
But Chapman’s biggest mistake comes in a passing comment in the dining room when she criticises the prison food. It turns out one of her fellow prisoners, Red (Kate Mulgrew), is also the head cook and she’s not happy.
Red gets her revenge by serving up the most unsavoury of meals to Chapman before instructing her team not to give her any more food. Everyone knows Chapman is being quietly starved, and complies with the decree.
The episode also features various flashbacks that show us more of Chapman’s life with Larry, including how she came to break the law. These scenes aren’t as engaging as those in the prison, but they do inform us more on her character.
It’s a device that will be used in subsequent episodes, with the second ep showing us how Red’s life married to a shady Russian businessman led to her incarceration. Wentworth similarly used flashbacks to show the back-history of its key characters.
Schilling, best known for the short-lived medical series Mercy, is excellent as Piper Chapman. She is well-cast as a sympathetic character, the prison newbie who is going to tough it in harsh circumstances.
I found it hard to believe Kate Mulgrew as the Red Russian with a feigned accent, having seen her work in so many other US shows, including Star Trek: Voyager. She’s just one of the kooky misfits in this drama, comprised by a strong ensemble cast including Australian actress Yael Stone (Lorna Morello). In this mad-house where the staff are as unhinged as the inmates, Chapman emerges as the most adjusted character of all.
But while Orange certainly grabs from the get-go, I’m yet to see a prison series match the realism and confronting nature of HBOS’ excellent Oz. Orange is the New Black sits roughly on the same page as Wentworth in terms of how far it is prepared to go in its adult content. It’s a tough customer, but is selective about the punch of its language, violence and nudity (I don’t recall any), with a lighter, offbeat side to its storytelling.
However, Kohan’s previous work with Weeds demonstrated her ability to juggle bittersweet stories and there’s every indication of a dark, resonant edge to her latest offering that makes this ultimately worthwhile.
Orange is the New Black airs 8:30pm Wednesday on Showcase.