A fish out of water in the slammer

Jason Biggs plays Larry Bloom, boyfriend of newly imprisoned Piper (Taylor Schilling).
Jason Biggs plays Larry Bloom, boyfriend of newly imprisoned Piper (Taylor Schilling). (BARBARA NITKE for Netflix)
Posted: July 12, 2013

On her first day in the federal pen, but looking like she just stepped off a tennis court, Piper (Taylor Schilling of Argo) is greeted by one of her ugly-makeover cellmates.

"Look at you, Blondie," says Nicky (Natasha Lyonne). "What did you do?"

"Aren't you not supposed to ask that question? I read that you're not supposed to ask that," says Piper.

"You read that? What, did you study for prison?"

Well, yeah! Maybe Martha Stewart's Guide to Stacking Time. The point is, Piper is a little out of her element.

That's the premise of Orange Is the New Black, an audacious (and adult) new comedy from Jenji Kohan, the creator of Weeds. In another bulk-drop, Netflix makes all 13 episodes of the first season available on Thursday.

Luckily, Piper has seasoned cellies like Big Boo (Lea DeLaria) to teach her the ropes. Like how to keep their cramped living quarters sparkling. "We clean everything with maxi pads," says Big Boo.

Even so, Piper makes a seemingly innocuous remark right off the bat that nearly gets her killed. But not by any of the brutal means you might imagine. And not by someone you could ever guess.

(One of the invigorating surprises of Orange is seeing Kate Mulgrew in a role that is several light-years away from the noble Capt. Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager.)

So how did a nice girl like Piper end up in a place like this? Turns out it was an error she make in the Rumspringa of her youth, but one with a long statute of limitations.

As her fiancé (Jason Biggs of American Pie) explains: "She told me how she traveled after college. But she failed to mention the lesbian lover who ran an international smuggling ring. Imagine my surprise."

Said lover is played (with real verve) by Laura Prepon ( Are You There, Chelsea?).

You see a lot of Biggs and Prepon because the series deftly alternates prison sequences with scenes from Piper's previously pampered existence. Flashbacks will also presumably be used to fill in the backstories of other prisoners, who are played by actresses including Michelle Hurst, Danielle Brooks, and Elizabeth Rodriguez.)

(Fans of the caged-women genre may remember Rodriguez as Sugar Morales, the con who befriended Erica Kane during one of her times in prison on All My Children.)

Based on Piper Kerman's memoir of the same name, Orange Is the New Black carries many of Kohan's trademark flourishes from Weeds: crisp pacing, a raucous tone, a wicked and insubordinate sense of humor, a heroine with unexpected reserves of strength and resilience and an ironic theme song (in this case, "You've Got Time" by Regina Spektor.

It also has a healthy contingent of Weeds alumni, including Michael Harney, Matt Peters, and Pablo Schreiber.

For Netflix, it's the second comedic look in a row at women behind bars, following Lucille Bluth's recent incarceration with the Jade Dragon Triad on Arrested Development.

Lucille's experiences, you may remember, resulted in the classic reality series, The Real Asian Prison Housewives of the Orange County White Collar Prison System.

Orange is the New Black mixes in a good deal of grit with its laughs. In fact, it's oddly refreshing to see such a large and heterogeneous cast who actually look like the people you see on the bus every day.

At one point, just before Piper finds out how cheaply her virtue can be bought, the gathered inmates are all laughing uproariously at the on-screen shenanigans of Dane Cook and Dan Fogler. Ah, at last we've identified the target audience for that inane 2007 comedy, Good Luck Chuck.


Orange Is the New Black

Available for download Thursday on Netflix


Contact David Hiltbrand at dhiltbrand@phillynews.com; follow him at www.inquirer.com/daveondemand or on Twitter @daveondemand_TV.

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