Netflix is apparently so darn confident the women's prison drama "Orange Is the New Black," will be its next super, binge-tastic hit that the Internet streaming service ordered up a second season of the show even before taking the wraps off Season 1.
Based on previews of the six highly entertaining episodes made available in advance to critics, that appears to be a good call. "Orange" is teeming with humor, heart and poignancy -- all the elements needed to qualify it as one of the summer's must-see shows.
The series comes to us from "Weeds" creator Jenji Kohan and takes its inspiration from a provocative memoir by Piper Kerman. She's a well-heeled Smith College graduate who spent 15 months in the clink, thanks to a reckless decision she made during her early 20s.
Kerman had befriended an older woman who also happened to be a drug trafficker. During their brief fling, Kerman was persuaded to do a one-time favor: ferry a suitcase of money through international customs. Bad idea.
Ten years later, Kerman was engaged to a nice guy and leading a crime-free, yuppie life when the feds appeared at her door to bust her. After making a plea-bargain deal, she was forced to trade in her cushy existence for an orange jumpsuit at a minimum-security prison.
As you would expect, the show mines plenty of humor from the fish-out-of-water conceit that has served television writers so well. Piper Chapman, wonderfully played by Taylor Schilling ("Argo"), isn't your stereotypical inmate. Blond, blue-eyed and wispy, she has recently developed a line of artisanal bath soaps and lotions with her best friend, Polly (Maria Dizzia), and has absolutely no clue to what awaits her.
When it dawns on Piper that she'll have to surrender her phone before serving her sentence, she whines to her boyfriend Larry (Jason Biggs) that there will be three more versions of the iPhone before she gets out. She also makes it clear that, while she's away, Larry will have to keep up her website and resist the urge to binge-watch "Mad Men" without her.
What you might not expect is how "Orange" goes beyond those easy laughs to offer significant -- and serious -- insights into life behind bars.
As the self-pitying Piper struggles to find her place in a world of strip searches, strange social codes and unnerving sexual come-ons, she comes into contact with women who haven't enjoyed the luxuries she has long taken for granted. And along the way, she begins to question the things she believes about herself and society as a whole.
"Orange" makes clever use of flashbacks to remind us of Piper's cozy past life and juxtapose it against her stark new reality. And, as the saga unfolds, the scope widens to focus on a colorful, diverse cast of characters, including Galina "Red" Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew), a Russian toughie who runs the prison kitchen; Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox), a transgender beautician; Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne), a recovering heroin addict; and Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), the lesbian drug dealer who got Piper into this whole mess in the first place.
It's Red who makes life difficult early on for Piper. When the newbie criticizes the cook's lunchtime offerings, there is hell to pay. But even here, "Orange" defies our expectations. Instead of a brutal prison-yard beat down, Piper faces a harsh but bloodless form of payback.
As a security guard points out, "This isn't 'Oz.' "
Schilling brings a fullness of feeling to the role. She's able to convey an impressive range of emotions -- from doubt and fear to helpless yearning to awkward naivete and steely determination. And though she exudes a whiff of smug entitlement that has you rooting for her to be taken down a peg or two, she also possesses enough charm and sweetness to keep us in her corner. Overall, Schilling's performance is a thing of beauty.
And so is this show. Kohan and her team have pulled off a neat trick here -- a highly distinctive piece of television that has both lightness and depth.
The challenge now is to keep it going. After all, Kohan's "Weeds," also got off to a great start but then spun out of control and became nearly unwatchable. Who knows? The same fate could befall "Orange Is the New Black."
For now, though, we're extremely pleased to serve our time with this show.
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When: 12:01 a.m. Thursday (all 13 episodes available simultaneously)