“Pilot” (season 1, episode 1)
When we first meet Piper Chapman, it isn’t a dramatic scene where a judge is handing down her sentence of 15 months in a women’s correctional facility. There is no dramatic moment of initial realization, and no moment where she’s shocked by learning she’s been identified as part of a drug ring she got swept up in a decade earlier. Instead, we meet Piper as a free woman charged with a crime, a crime that she pled guilty to in an effort to avoid the potential minimum sentence tied to drug-related offenses. She chose this path, even if it was simply because she was told it was the safest choice, and thus her life is about to change based on her own agency. Nothing made this more clear than her choice of self-surrender: she just drives up to the prison with her fiancé, announces her intentions, and becomes an inmate as opposed to being made one.
Or, rather, that’s what Piper intends. Self-surrender gives the prisoner the opportunity to see their story as a story of becoming, wherein full control of their future is in their hands: there’s no handcuffs, no sirens, and she even gets to go into the holding room with her fiancé Larry like they’re waiting in a doctor’s office. Then, the control starts to slip away, bit by bit. The phone has to be returned to the car; the commissary check they brought along as though they’re renewing a driver’s license has to be sent to Iowa for processing; and then, finally, Larry can go no further, forced to wait until the next visiting hours before they can be reunited again. Up until that moment, Piper believed she could “become” an inmate; After that moment, that narrative of becoming is stripped out of her hands, and placed in the hands of a chaotic, unpredictable environment over which she has absolutely no control.
Jenji Kohan and Liz Friedman’s script for Orange Is The New Black’s pilot kicks into high gear at this point, slowly building back toward the in medias res opening that places Piper’s naiveté into perspective as we see her careful preparations for entering Litchfield. Although that opening scene recalls the most clichéd of prison clichés—the showers—the pilot mostly avoids piling on the typical prison terrors. As opposed to throwing Piper into the deep end, the script offers characters like Morello who are willing to help new inmates learn the ropes, and characters Yoga Jones who are willing to offer some words of wisdom. For a moment, it appears that once Piper gets over the initial shock she’ll be able to adapt fine: As she says to her counselor Healy—played by Michael Harney, who was a solid supporting player in Weeds’ later seasons—she knows what she did, she knows why she’s there, and she’s read all the books she needs to remain clear-headed and take her 15 months without complication.
As Piper becomes Chapman, stripped of her first name, she discovers you can’t use books to prepare yourself for prison. She’s done all of her due-diligence before she sits down to her first meal, and the books surely told her to find ways to commiserate with your fellow inmates to ingratiate yourself to them. But the book didn’t tell you that you should avoid disparaging the food in front of the vengeful Russian woman who runs the kitchen, or that you would subsequently be served a bloody tampon (with no food to go with it). Piper doesn’t fumble her way into prison and make a hilarious collection of mistakes that turn her into an embarrassment; she makes one mistake, not dissimilar to the one mistake she made getting involved with drugs in the first place, and it places her in immediate danger. Rather than portraying prison as a place where your life is hell 24 hours a day, Kohan and Friedman point to prison as a place where life can become hell at the drop of a hat, and where digging yourself out from under is more challenging than it is on the outside.
An engaging introduction to the series’ world, the pilot works because of its ability to juggle its three distinct tasks. Its primary goal is to introduce us to Piper, given that she’s our central character and the impetus behind us entering the prison to begin with; this task is generally well-scripted, but Taylor Schilling also gives a nicely grounded performance that—not unlike Weeds star Mary-Louise Parker—manages to find humor without seeming hammy or broad. Tied to this goal is the pilot’s need to explain how Piper got herself into this situation, which necessitates flashbacks into her relationship with drug importer Alex (Laura Prepon). It’s here where the pilot struggles most, laboring to lay the groundwork for Alex’s surprise appearance at the end of the episode. It’s a nice punchline, a casual greeting that the pilot at least establishes is anything but casual for Piper, but Schilling and Prepon struggle to escape the fact it’s a relationship framed for us before we really get a chance to judge their chemistry; it could break out beyond the frame in future episodes, but it struggles to do so here.
The third task, meanwhile, is to introduce us to the space of the Litchfield Correctional Facility. It’s this task that takes a back seat here: we meet various other inmates, get a quick glimpse of the guards with characters like Cavuto and Pornstache, but we don’t really get to know them because Piper doesn’t have time to interact with them. Told exclusively from Piper’s perspective, the pilot narrows in productively, giving us enough information to become interested if not enough to feel like the supporting players are as of yet well developed. The show does well to seed certain issues though, identifying the racial—or rather tribal—divide in the prison and acknowledging the primacy of race, gender, and sexuality in its cast of characters.
Yoga Jones tells Piper that prison is temporary, and encourages her to make the most of her experience. That’s the kind of freedom Piper imagined she would have, but Orange Is The New Black’s pilot is designed to show her how difficult it is to live up to Yoga Jones’ words of wisdom. Transferred to our experience as viewers, though, it’s a pilot that gives the viewer room to imagine the possibilities of where this story could be heading. None of what we see here feels as though it can't be changed, evolved, or blown open. As much as the pilot tells the story of how Piper is threatened by the rigid structures and hierarchies of her new position, the looseness of that system holds great promise for a television drama, an ecosystem only limited here by Piper’s perspective (which seems unlikely to be our only perspective for long).
- Boilerplate Spoiler Warning: If you’re reading this, it’s possible you’ve watched beyond the two episodes we’re covering today. If you have, please avoid mentioning any major spoilers for upcoming episodes in the comments—we’ll get to those episodes eventually, and someone will be writing a full season review sometime in the near future where you can have those conversations while waiting for the episodic reviews to catch up. If you want to include some minor spoilers, be sure to clearly mark them, or avoid them altogether.
- These reviews will be a weird beast for a few weeks, in that they’re based exclusively on detailed notes I took while watching each episode but being edited after I’ve seen the first six—I hereby solemnly swear to both avoid spoilers and, more importantly, to capture my initial responses as opposed to reading into future developments.
- I will say that I grow more and more enamored of the great opening credit sequence, with a Regina Spektor-penned theme in “You’ve Got Time”—evocative, striking, and catchy.
- Jason Biggs’ Larry gets more to do early in the pilot as Piper struggles in the moments leading up to her self-surrender—those early scenes feature a nice easy-going performance from Biggs, balancing a strong but more emotional turn from Schilling.
- The horrifying “squat-and-cough” was something that until recently I’d never seen dramatized, but it was also central to a storyline on The CW’s short-lived The L.A. Complex (which will soon be available on Netflix).
- Curious to hear what expectations people are bringing into the series: between Piper Kerman’s novel, and Jenji Kohan’s work on Weeds, there’s a lot of authorship hanging over the show depending on your points of reference.
“Tit Punch" (season 1, episode 2)
Throughout Orange Is The New Black’s pilot, Piper Chapman meets a collection of colorful characters. Told entirely through her perspective, however, the pilot isn’t in a position to branch off to tell their stories, tethered to Piper’s journey from self-surrender to mental breakdown when Alex confronts her. Although “Tit Punch” continues to tell Piper’s story, its primary task is to begin to flesh out the other characters that inhabit her environment, beginning with Kate Mulgrew’s Red.
Of the various supporting players in the series, Mulgrew made the biggest impression in the pilot, if only because “Kate Mulgrew as an angry Russian prison chef” sells itself. Red is also the supporting player that comes closest to caricature, which is probably one of reasons Kohan and the writing staff chose to add further dimension to her character first. Between the often-broad accent, and the “RED” scrawled on her chef’s coat, and the way she runs the prison while getting massages in the ladies’ bathroom, the character could easily fit into Kohan’s collection of borderline cartoonish villains she developed on Weeds. Characters like Guillermo or U-Turn were too menacing to be taken lightly, but they were also too silly to be taken entirely seriously, embodying Weeds’ desire to straddle the line between comedy and drama.
Orange Is The New Black is similarly interested in the notion of “dramedy,” but the development of Red helps clarify that this is ultimately a dramatic series. Whereas Piper’s flashbacks are largely constructed for thematic effect—setting up her knowledge of lotion-making and paralleling her starvation at the hands of Red with her juice cleanse—Red’s are designed to give us further insight into how she was transformed from a wife and proprietor into what it’s easy to mistake for a hardened criminal mastermind. We meet Red as she’s auditioning for a spot on the Real Housewives of the Russian Mob, a spot she’s denied when her offensive jokes and try hard approach rubs the other wives the wrong way. Deemed a social outcast, Red responds impulsively, and with the ill-aimed punch of a tit pops a breast implant and creates a debt with the mob that will eventually send her to prison.
This is not the story of what Red did to end up in prison (which, as Piper’s books told us in the pilot, is a question you’re not supposed to ask): although it’s implied that her store was used as a storage facility for the mob’s affairs thus making her an accessory to a larger crime, the series is more interested in the character motivations that brought her to that point. Forced into interacting with the women by her husband (who believes it will be good for business), Red makes one mistake in a heated moment, popping the breast implant of the worst person imaginable and paying a hefty price. Although distinct in certain ways, it’s not dissimilar from Piper’s story: an accessory to a larger crime, spurred into action by heated emotions, and forced to pay the price for your mistake. The difference is that while Piper has had a decade to mature since her crime, Red—we presume—somewhat quickly found herself in too deep, and once in prison channeled her anger into gaining power over a different group of white women.
The decision to use flashbacks makes a lot of sense for the show, and it’s better for having extended beyond Piper. While I would acknowledge that flashbacks always feel contrived on some level, transparent efforts to provide exposition for the audience, they’re a great dramatic tool for acknowledging that nearly every story told on television is in medias res given that we’re joining people’s lives in progress. I sometimes worry that long-term dissatisfaction with Lost’s muddled narrative has distracted from how simple and effective its flashbacks were in the beginning: Even if you were unsatisfied with or unconvinced by Lost’s efforts to reframe itself as a story of the castaways’ personal journeys rather than the story of a mysterious island, the flashbacks proved pivotal in grounding the show early on, developing characters that could sustain the often convoluted plot around them.
Although Orange Is The New Black doesn’t have to worry about smoke monsters, the prison isn’t unlike the island. Both have a collection of characters there for different reasons, with different relationships to their past and present lives. It’s also a place where who you were and who you are can be very different, and where the uncertainty of day-to-day life can offer both freedom and terror in equal measure. Also like the island, it’s a space where you are neither fully defined by your past or your present. It’s not as though the only interesting character shading we’re getting is through flashbacks: the show is still sketching out the prison hierarchies, and we’re also getting development for characters like Diaz through her interactions with her mother and flirtations with Bennett (who we met in the pilot as the guard who seemed the most decent and human). By reaffirming a reciprocal relationship between the past and present, “Tit Punch” lays the foundation for a structure that could allow the series both room to tell dramatic stories and space to explore their long-term dramatic—and comic—consequences.
- Larry Watch: While the episode brings us Larry’s first visit to the prison, we also get out first glimpses of Larry on the outside, unable to resist the lure of new episodes of Mad Men despite promising to wait for Piper. It was a nice nod to the binge-viewing made possible by Netflix, and a fun use of the two series’ shared production lineage to get some Mad Men footage.
- The show is choosing to slow in its exploration of Alex and Piper’s relationship—we know they’re in the same prison, but “Tit Punch” doesn’t give us a definitive confrontation between the two characters. Curious to see how long they can justify the slow burn, but it has the potential to create some nice anticipation (especially given that Piper neglected to tell Larry about it).
- Piper’s quest to get back in Red’s good graces shows some ingenuity, some guts, and the show’s ability to craft episodic storylines that nonetheless function as a part of ongoing serialized story. It also gives us a good reason to map out more of the prison infrastructure, meeting characters like Sophia and Crazy Eyes along the way.