‘You may NOT come back with a unibrow,” Piper Chapman’s best friend warns her in the first episode of Netflix’s excellent “Orange Is the New Black.” A Brooklyn yuppie who runs an artisanal bath soap business, Piper is about to go to federal prison for 15 months, for a drug-smuggling crime she committed 10 years earlier.
Hey, no worries. Our plucky 32-year-old heroine, played with manic energy by Taylor Schilling, plans to use her time behind bars creatively, to whittle down her Amazon reading list and build up her abs. Piper does have one serious anxiety, though: “Promise you’re not watching ‘Mad Men’ without me,” she begs her menschy fiance, Larry (Jason Biggs).
Once she arrives at Litchfield Prison and puts on her orange outfit, of course, Piper’s pretty little world is rocked. Based on Piper Kerman’s memoir, “Orange Is the New Black” is a funny, dramatically sound, poignant, and thoroughly addictive adventure through a bleak looking glass. “This isn’t ‘Oz,’ ” a prison official tells Piper, referring to HBO’s gritty prison series; and it isn’t, in terms of brutality. But for Piper, Litchfield, where moldy tubs of pudding are marked “Desert Storm” and the women clean their cells with maxipads, it’s close enough. Toto, she has a feeling she’s not in Whole Foods anymore.
The series is from Jenji Kohan, who brought us “Weeds.” And “Orange Is the New Black” is also about a sheltered but defiant woman who finds herself in a quicksand of criminals. “Weeds” even explored prison life, with an arc that had Mary Louise Parker’s pot-dealing Nancy behind bars.
But “Orange” promises to be a better and more expansive show, at least based on the first four episodes, as it explores not only the fish-out-of-water story of the WASPy-looking Piper in a mixed socioeconomic and racial world, but the personalities of her prison mates. Each hourlong episode moves forward with Piper’s Martha Stewart-like efforts to survive as well as backward, to explain who all these people are and how they landed in jail. The more we learn about the likes of Galina “Red” Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew), the Russian woman who runs the kitchen, or transgender beautician Sophia (Laverne Cox), the more “Orange” becomes a broad storytelling tapestry. These characters aren’t just types; each of them, even the least appealing, slowly becomes three-dimensional.
The magisterial Red, in particular, is a kick, as she withholds food from Piper for insulting the prison food. “You look great,” Larry says to Piper during their first visitation, unaware of the starvation situation; “Your face is all cheek-boney.” When any of the inmates first catch a glimpse of Piper, whom some of them eventually call Taylor Swift, they tend to snicker. She’s a conspicuous softie in a world of tough women, including her recovering-addict cellmate Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) and a smitten hothead known as Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba). They can practically smell her submissiveness. She gets shuttled like a puck in a game among the prison’s racially divided groupings — as well as some of the guards, who, like the guy known only as Pornstache (Pablo Schreiber), are sadistic and pervy.
To be fair, Piper isn’t quite as conventional and insulated as it may seem. Long before she met Larry, she had a female lover, played with icy cool by Laura Prepon, who pulled her into the world of drug smuggling. She had her post-college dalliance. But still, she is an entitled woman who thinks that, because she is white and from Connecticut, she doesn’t deserve to be punished for what she did. Kohan and the other writers aren’t irritatingly moralistic, but Piper is clearly heading for a few lessons about how she takes her life of luxury for granted.
Schilling, who starred in a short-lived hospital series called “Mercy,” is perfectly cast. She does a great job of keeping Piper likable, no matter how precious she can be. She gives us a woman who is innocent and spoiled, and yet you can tell that there is a layer of steel somewhere underneath it all. You root for her to figure out how to fit in at Litchfield, and when she gets resourceful and does a favor for a hostile inmate, you want to cheer a little. And Schilling is surrounded by uniformly strong performances. Prepon is a revelation as Piper’s ex, and Aduba masterfully balances humor and terror as the woman who falls for Piper and calls her “Dandelion.” As Red, Mulgrew is a top dog who only needs to be scratched in the right spots to relax a bit.
Netflix is taking its now-familiar episode-dump approach to “Orange Is the New Black,” releasing all 13 episodes on Thursday. So if you’re inclined, you can plow through these hours, which have been sharply directed by various directors including Jodie Foster. But you might want to exercise a little self-control, spread them out across the summer, and savor them.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Matthew