Piper Chapman is going to prison.
When she was young, adventurous and, well, stupid, Piper (Taylor Schilling) — or Chapman as she’ll come to be known in the clink — smuggled a suitcase full of drug money out of the country, at the encouragement of her then-lover, Alex (Laura Prepon, “That ‘70s Show”).
“I did it. That one time. Ten years ago,” she tells a prison counselor after turning herself in during the first episode of the new Netflix original “Orange is the New Black,” all 13 episodes of which were posted to the online streaming service last week. (It’s also already been renewed for a second season).
The statute of limitations for her crime is 12 years, though, so when Piper is named by her former girlfriend in court, she has to give up her life in New York, where she and a friend are just launching a line of artisanal bath products (you can bet sharing that description of the business does her no favors where she’s going).
She leaves behind her fiancée Larry (Jason Biggs), her pregnant best friend and business partner Polly (Maria Dizzia) and her snooty mother (Deborah Rush), who has decided to tell friends that Piper is away doing volunteer work in Africa while she serves her 15-month sentence.
I’ve watched six of the 13 episodes and was really impressed with how the show, from “Weeds” creator Jenji Kohan, presented the harshness of Piper’s new life.
Kohan doesn’t shy away from the dark side, which includes mistreatment at the hands of the staff and clashes between inmates.
But there’s also plenty of dark humor as we watch Piper adjust to being behind bars (one of my favorite lines from early on: “How am I supposed to fight an old Russian lady with back problems?”).
She gets occasional advice from her prison counselor, who seems to have a soft spot for her; no ulterior motives were revealed in the episodes that I’ve seen, but there’s always an underlying creepiness to his behavior.
“No one’s going to mess with you here unless you let them. It’s not ‘Oz,’” he tells her at one point. “Women fight with gossip and rumors. They might peg you for rich and try to hit you up for commissary. … Just keep to yourself and you’ll be fine. Don’t make friends.”
Easier said than done. Piper does make a few friends, and enemies, along the way. There’s Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), an outspoken former drug addict; Sophia (Laverne Cox), a transgender inmate who runs the prison hair salon; Lorna (Yael Stone), whose fiancée back home doesn’t stop her from hooking up with a fellow prisoner; and, eventually, that “old Russian lady with back problems,” played by an unrecognizable Kate Mulgrew (known for her work in various “Star Trek” series and movies).
Episodes alternate between the present-day action and different time periods in the lives of Piper and her fellow inmates.
Piper’s flashbacks are usually connected to the action taking place in prison, like when she remembers the time she and Larry tried a juice cleanse while she’s being starved out by the kitchen staff. Others show her relationship with Alex, her crime and the time leading up to it (before, Piper tells Larry in another hilarious scene, “I became the nice blonde lady I was supposed to be.”).
The inmates get more of a back story treatment, with scenes detailing how they ended up in prison (most are pretty sympathetic).
They're stories I can't wait to get back to. “Orange is the New Black” presents a group of people that I didn’t always like, but that I also didn’t want to leave behind.
Contact Casey Gillis at (434) 385-5525 or firstname.lastname@example.org.