From the creator of Weeds comes a Netflix show the likes of which most people haven't seen before — Orange is the New Black!
Based on the 2010 memoir Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison by Piper Kerman, the series follows the story of Piper Chapman (played by Taylor Schilling) as she spends 15 months incarcerated in a women's prison after getting caught up in a drug trafficking ring thanks to her ex-lover Alex Vause (played by That '70s Show's Laura Prepon). While Schilling's character acts as the show's protagonist, Orange is the New Black notably features a large ensemble cast of recurring characters. American Pie's Jason Biggs, Star Trek: Voyager's Kate Mulgrew, NYBD Blue's Michael Harney, and the quietly accomplished Michelle Hurst also play starring roles in the series.
Season one of Orange is the New Black begins with Chapman's willful surrender for her involvement with a drug ring a decade before the show's beginning. A series of flashbacks into Chapman's pre-prison life dovetail with the moments leading up to the beginning of her incarceration, establishing the general conceit of the series: well-to-do woman ends up in prison under strange circumstances and is forced to adapt to the culture shock of penitentiary life. It's a lot to take in, so let's break down the basic major characters in a spoiler-free way:
Piper Chapman: Initially portrayed as an innocent, yuppie-ish blond, Piper's day-to-day life pre-prison consisted largely of running an artisanal soap line with her best friend, spending time with her fiancé (Jason Biggs), trying out various fasts and cleanses and other stereotypically suburban activities. Unfortunately for present-day Chapman, the Chapman a decade prior found herself embroiled with a drug cartel when she was going through a "lesbian phase", thanks to her former girlfriend, Alex Vause. With a statute of limitations for the drug case spanning 12 years, Chapman and Vause both wind up incarcerated thanks to the activities they engaged in during their relationship.
Alex Vause: Chapman's former girlfriend, Alex grew up in a broken home and was constantly bullied as a child, leading her down a dark path which ultimately found her involved with the drug cartel that landed both her and Chapman in prison.
Sam Healy: Played by Michael Harney, Healy is Chapman's correctional officer and social worker. He's passive-aggressive and apparently has issues with lesbians for reasons not particularly clear.
Miss Claudette: Played by Michelle Hurst, Miss Claudette is Chapman's incredibly strict cellmate. She's widely feared by the other inmates.
Galina "Red" Reznikov: "Red" (Kate Mulgrew) run's the prison's kitchen. She controls who eats and who doesn't in the prison, and it's a poorly-kept secret that she's the person in charge of the facility behind the scenes. She's judgmental and vindictive but is also considered a mother figure by many of the inmates.
Larry Bloom: Played by Jason Biggs, Bloom is Chapman's fiancé and a struggling writer working to make his way up the journalistic ranks. He's a nice — if naive — person who truly believes his relationship with Chapman can survive her prison term.
Flitting between drama and comedy — often without missing a beat — OITNB offers a potent look at life in a women's prison; prison life is still life, but stakes and circumstances are radically different from the world outside the walls. Chapman's WASP-ish naivete amplifies her struggle to adapt to life behind bars, and much of the story is focused around her conflicts and interactions with other inmates — some of whom are friendly and maternal, others of whom are hostile, others of whom are purely self-motivated. The show also delves into Chapman's struggle to maintain her relationship with her fiancé while trying to reevaluate and reconcile her relationship with Alex.
Orange is the New Black is Netflix's latest — and arguably most successful — foray into the world of original programming, and while some have panned series creator Jenji Kohan for rehashing the general structural arc of Weeds for OITNB (naive, well-intentioned woman ends up involved with drug dealers, forcing her down a troubled path), overall reception has been very positive. Washington Post critic Hank Steuver gave the show's first season a perfect score, writing: "In Jenji Kohan’s magnificent and thoroughly engrossing new series, Orange Is the New Black, prison is still the pits. But it is also filled with the entire range of human emotion and stories, all of which are brought vividly to life in a world where a stick of gum could ignite either a romance or a death threat."
OITNB has been renewed for a second season, though Laura Prepon recently announced she may not be returning to the show as a regular, full-time cast member for its second run.