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September 21, 2023

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Media Review: “Orange is the New Black”

Grade: A

Jenji Kohan’s Showtime series “Weeds” took a hit – not in the cannabis way – as it signed off in Sept. 2012. The unique developer of a mom-gone-drug-dealer satire, queen-of-dark-comedy Kohan could’ve done a much better job developing the series finale, a feat mistakable for fan-fiction.

As Kohan was orchestrating Nancy Botwin’s “Weeds” overdue farewell in mid 2012, she was also creating a fresh new series for Netflix: “Orange is the New Black,” based on “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison,” Piper Kerman’s nonfiction memoir about a federal corrections facility.

This raw, brutally gripping series must have taken precedent over Kohan’s other projects; it allows us to cut Kohan some slack for that botched “Weeds” ending.

A prototype for white and “WASPy” privilege, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling, “Argo)” gets caught up in a drug scheme with her college lover (Laura Prepon, “That ‘70s Show).” Ten years later, Chapman must leave her journalist fiancé (Michael J. Harney) and go to jail for possessing a suitcase of drug money, a crime with a statute of limitations of 12 years, something Chapman is quick to note.

For someone whose best work is in the grey, Kohan and her writers should’ve been exploring women’s prison earlier: it’s a breeding ground for ethical dilemmas and painstaking choices that match Kohan’s tone. Though many of these women have done horrible things, they are relatable.

About midway through the season, Chapman makes a jaw-dropping decision that seems vehemently wrong. Yet in the next episode, when talking with a particularly feisty juvenile delinquent visiting jail as a deterrent to winding up behind bars, Chapman puts things in perspective.

“I’m scared that I’m not myself in here, and I’m scared that I am,” she says. “Other people aren’t the scariest part of prison. It’s coming face-to-face with who you really are.”

Anyone who follows Kohan’s work knows she’s not all about oppression and sadness. Honing in on the “comedy” aspect of dark-comedy, Kohan recognizes that humor is a vital coping method. Appropriate doses of humor mostly come from an incredible group of inmates who are perfectly cast. Both heartbreaking and revealing, these prisoners tackle their personal problems while offering Kohan-style insight on masochism, racism, bureaucracy, sexism, transsexualism and other big issues.

Though there’s an extensive history of women’s prison in TV and film, nothing quite like this has ever existed. Relevant, relentless and funny, “Orange is the New Black” is the must-see-TV experience of the summer.

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