Jenji Kohan, creator of the popular show “Weeds,” trail blazed the world of digital television when her show “Orange is the New Black” debuted as a Netflix exclusive this summer.
On July 11, all 13 hour-long episodes of the show’s first season were released to the public. The show follows Piper Chapman, played by Taylor Schilling, as she struggles to adapt to life in a female detention center, a stark contrast to her previously cozy life as an upper-class college grad.
The storyline is based on a memoir of the same name, released by Piper Kerman in 2010, that details her brief stint in a Connecticut women’s prison. The show’s unique digital medium allows for the story to be told in memoir form, introducing supporting characters through a series of vignettes and flashbacks.
Netflix has released shows of this style before, with the revolutionary “House of Cards” and lesser-known “Hemlock Grove,” but the true brilliance of the company’s style is in allowing viewers to “binge watch,” which further frees the show’s writers and creators to produce in a whole new way.
Since many people watch the show a few episodes at a time, or even all the episodes at once, the typical idea of story arcs and cliffhangers no longer applies to this genre of television. Because of this, the first season of “Orange is the New Black” is much less action driven and more focused on deeply understanding each character.
Another distinctive aspect of “Orange is the New Black” is its female-centered cast. While there are some important male characters, the show’s setting of an all-female prison provides a uniquely feminine perspective. However, the orange jumpsuits and harsh reality of life in jail shows an interesting contrast to what is considered womanly.
Although the show’s success has been attributed to its original screenwriting and rare production, a cast of many familiar faces also has audiences applauding. The two conflicting love interests, Piper’s fiancé and her former lover are played by Jason Biggs of “American Pie” and Laura Prepon from “That 70’s Show.” Jenji Kohan also borrowed several actors previously seen on “Weeds,” such as Michael J. Harney who plays Officer Healy and Pablo Schreiber as Officer Mendez.
While the show’s first few episodes deal mostly with the horrifying and comedic experiences of Piper adjusting to prison life, as the show progresses, the focus is less on the daily life in jail and more about the strange harmony (and disharmony) between inmates. The show is provocative in its references to sex, drugs and violence but overall shares an uplifting and positive message about the value of people, even those in jail.