Without a doubt one of the best new shows of the year, and a fantastic character study with an almost entirely female cast, none of whom are bereft of screentime over the excellent first season.
From Weeds creator Jenji Kohan, this new show is loosely based on Piper Kerman's book about a year spent in a women's prison in New York. Taylor Schilling is the main character, also named Piper, who is sentenced to 15 months for drug smuggling, an act she committed more than ten years earlier while she was in a relationship with a drug dealer played by Laura Prepon. Now she's engaged to Jason Biggs, and heads off to prison in the first episode, where she gets to interact with a host of colorful and crazy inmates, all of whom are played by character actresses giving funny and vivid performances, including Prepon as the ex-girlfriend who's in there with her.
While the show is more of a dramatic comedy and I don't think the intent is to show prison in the most realistic light necessarily, the place and the people become so alive and developed that it does feel as if we've gone to prison right along with Piper and are experiencing how it would feel to be cooped up with all these women every minute of every day. And while it is mostly comedic, the show explores the background of many of the inmates through flashbacks to their lives on the outside, similar to the way Lost worked with the castaways. This functions to humanize them, allowing you to identify or sympathize with the mistakes they've made and the lives they've lived, showing you how any so-called normal person can take a wrong turn, based on who they are and where they've come from.
The biggest and most welcome surprise to me was the fully realized exploration of women of all races. It's extremely rare for film or television to bother showing more than the token white privileged experience- and while Piper is our way into the prison and our protagonist, screentime is equally spread between all of the inmates, be they white, black, hispanic, from poverty, privilege or the middle class. The show works as an authentic commentary on race and class relations, female sexuality, and relationships with a frankness and candor that isn't afraid to touch on any subject with an observational approach and a joke to go with it. There's an occasional broadness to the comedy I suppose, but the performances are so good that most of these actresses pull it off with energy and zest; and it's incredibly refreshing to see that "hotness and body image" weren't the qualities used to cast the ensemble- most of them look as if they could be actual prisoners. The standouts are Kate Mulgrew as a Russian woman who runs the kitchen, Laverne Cox as a transgender inmate and Taryn Manning as an evangelical shrew (and who's just been made a regular for Season 2). And Taylor Schilling is a good lead as the narcissistic Piper, who is essentially the straight man, but holds it all together in the face of the nuttier characters surrounding her.
The men on the show are not given the short shrift either, as we get to see plenty of Jason Biggs as Piper's fiance Larry, who's our window into her family and would be life on the outside, Michael J. Carney as the villainous prison counselor, and Pablo Schrieber who's fantastic as the sadistic prison guard who simultaneously revolts and amuses us with his perverted proclivities.
Netflix has really managed to come out swinging with quality programming in the last six months, and could be the new HBO as far as TV is concerned. Although I will say that I don't think this is the type of show that benefits from binge-watching, as I would have been perfectly happy to watch this on a week by week basis. I even wonder had it played as such, would that have given it the opportunity to grow buzz and hype, as more people discovered it and spread the word? As it is now, I hope that they will discover it, because I have a feeling it could be the best new comedy of recent years and given the chance, be around for quite a while.