When it was originally on: 2013-2019
Original network: Netflix
Where you can stream it now: Netflix
Had I seen it before: I’ve seen 4 seasons and about half of season 5. At one point considered it to be one of my favorite shows.
What IMDb says: Convicted of a decade old crime of transporting drug money to an ex-girlfriend, normally law-abiding Piper Chapman is sentenced to a year and a half behind bars to face the reality of how life-changing prison can really be.
Why I picked it: Orange is the New Black was instrumental in proving that streaming-native programming could be a viable enterprise. It also proved just how much pent up demand there was for television that featured a predominantly female cast of varying ethnicities. I would argue that the television landscape in the latter part of the ’10s looks entirely different if Orange is the New Black had never existed.
I also think it’s interesting how Orange is the New Black somewhat successfully transformed from a story centered on a single character to a rich ensemble with one of the deepest benches of interesting, well developed characters in all of television. It should be fun to go back to the very Piper-centric pilot and see if there are any traces of the ensemble show we’d eventually get.
What I liked: The pilot does a very good job of illustrating just how jarring it is to go from Piper’s old life to prison. It would be very easy for a pilot like this to devolve into “okay, I get it, prison sucks.” but I never get there. We get enough strategically placed flashbacks that the scenes about prison never feel monotonous. There’s a particularly good example of this right off the bat, as Piper describes how she loves getting clean. Baths and showers are her happy place. We see footage of Piper taking baths and showers with her ex-lover Alex, and her current fiancé, Larry. It looks like a commercial for a spa. This abruptly shifts to the prison showers, where Piper is cowering away from the shower head spitting cold water on her. It’s loud and it’s dirty. This shift conveys the theme of the whole show, and we get it before we’re even a full minute into the pilot.
The pilot also does a great job of taking things from bad to worse. By the end of the pilot, Piper has pissed off Red, the inmate who runs the kitchens. We have no idea when she’ll be served a meal again. That ex-lover Alex, i.e. the reason she was part of a drug trafficking ring in the first place, shows up at the very end. We not only get a great sense for how prison life in general is shitty, but also how Piper’s life is shitty in Piper-specific ways. This is especially important because Piper can’t choose to leave prison. She CAN choose what to do to try and appease Red and she also gets a say in what kind of a relationship she’s going to try to have with Alex. There’s challenges Piper is facing that she actually has to do something about, and we have to watch episode 2 to figure out what that something is.
What I didn’t like: I don’t know that this is a true dislike, but I will say this doesn’t really have a ton of the traces of ensemble I mentioned above. Pretty much every other inmate exists to help explain how prison works to Piper.
Do I want to watch Ep. 2: Yes! Even knowing how the first several seasons of this show play out, rewatching the pilot makes me want to see Ep. 2. The ending just has that kind of effect.