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Orange Is the New Black: Season 1
We were all young and stupid once, with a fair majority having done something worthy of regret. Of course, many of us had the luxury of moving on and forging better lives… but what if something from your past came back to haunt you? Well, that's precisely what happened to Piper Kerman. In 1993, she began a relationship with a woman that dealt heroin for a West African drug mogul, and involved herself in the operation for some months (four-ish) by laundering money. Five years later, Kerman was indicted and given little choice but to plead guilty. It wasn't until 2004 - at which point Kerman was engaged to be married - that she actually began a 15 month sentence at a minimum security prison in Connecticut. Released 13 months later, many had expressed interest in wanting to know what her experience was like ‘on the inside', so she wrote 2010's detailed memoir, Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison. The book was met with positive reviews from press and public alike, and eventually grabbed the attention of Jenji Kohan, best known as the woman behind Showtime's Weeds. As a result, the book was eventually adapted and debuted on Netflix, and much like the rest of the original programming they stream, the entire season was available to binge-watch on day one. Now, Orange is the New Black - The Complete First Season is available for consumption on Blu-ray, and it's just in time for the second season's premiere in June.
Of course, like any publication adapted for film or television, the details have been altered a bit for the sake of entertainment. I won't say that Jenji Kohan has gone willy nilly with her imagination - mainly because Kerman is on board as a consultant - but she's definitely gone to great lengths to ensure there's jaw-dropping moments at every turn. For example, the real life Piper never served time under the same roof as her ex-girlfriend (played here by Laura Prepon), but it's become a major plot point for the series. Kerman was once reprimanded for insulting the chef's food, but in the show, Piper ‘Chapman' (Taylor Schilling) is provided a meal consisting of a bloody tampon burger and subsequently starved out. Piper's fiancé (played by Jason Biggs) was supportive of her in the real world, but wonders if he should distance himself from her on-screen. This is the kind of thing I worried about when learning of Jenji Kohan's involvement, because I feel her tendency to go over-the-top with everything is what ultimately ruined Weeds after the first few seasons.
My fears have been belayed however, because these embellishments have actually served the first season pretty well. While the altered events are a bit more extreme than those conveyed in the book, they definitely keep things interesting. More importantly, they consistently serve as catalysts for Piper to adapt in her new, albeit temporary environment… which is the meat and potatoes of the concept that Jenji Kohan is attempting to explore.
Kohan believes that our society - despite an exploding population with a wealth of connectivity at their fingertips - exists in a state where people merely coexist with one another. Is that an assessment even worth countering? Just try to say ‘hello' to everyone you pass for a single day: Some will be receptive, but many others will mumble a labored ‘hi' under their breath just because they feel obligated to… if they don't just flat out ignore you, that is. But what happens when you're thrust into a situation that's far beyond your comfort zone? What happens when you have to interact with people you'd probably never even so much as look at, especially in such a small world with its own set of arbitrary rules? Well, as Piper is quick to learn, you need to observe, know when to keep quiet, grow a backbone, barter, and above all else, be creative. It's powerful stuff, through and through.
Something else I love about the series, is that it provides each inmate an episode to reveal what landed them in the slammer through flashbacks. Think LOST, but without all the convoluted stuff to muddy the water. Watching Piper adapt and survive is all well and good, but it would have grown stale if the audience couldn't connect with the very people she more or less has to make connections with. Kohan does a fantastic job at executing this aspect of the program, and I honestly can't wait to see how she carries this concept into the second season. Oh, and speaking of the inmates (including Piper), the acting from everyone involved is pretty impressive. There are some who stand out more than others, but I think Kohan has managed a near impossibility by introducing us to so many secondary characters, and having each and every one of them shine while they're on-screen. It also allows us a fresh of breath air on occasion, as we get to see some life outside the prison walls.
Solid writing, solid acting... Orange is the New Black stands out as one of the better newcomers I've seen from 'television' in recent years. Right now, it seems like studios are content with copying each other, delivering prequel stories to classic film franchises that nobody really asked for in the first place. SHIELD? Arrow? Bates Motel? Hannibal? Hell, they're even moving forward with a prequel series about the Jason Voorhees family... yes, that Jason Voorhees. That nonsense needs to stop...
But this? It has the potential for a bright future, and I'm optimistic for what's yet to come... albeit cautiously. Why cautious? Well again, Kohan's track record shows she has little restraint when it comes to plot or character development. The cast of Weeds had turned into cartoon caricatures of their former selves, and the devices she utilized to propel the story just got wilder and wilder. I'm already seeing signs that some of the inmates are being pigeon-holed if not stereotyped, so they could become a bit silly depending on how Jenji decides to portray them. Furthermore, if she wants to top some of the things that happened in the first season - and I imagine she does - she very well may jump the shark there, too. I'll keep watching, though, because with the fantastic execution of the series thus far, I'm hooked. It's quite dramatic, but also inject just the right of comedic relief to keep the content digestible. Hopefully Piper Kerman's involvement will keep things reasonably reined in, because I'd like to see this show continue for at least a few more years.
Encoded at 1080p utilizing the AVC codec (1.78:1), Orange is the New Black is near flawless. I won't go on and on, but there's nothing on the technical side to complain about. The image is sharp in a natural way, there's no signs of digital tampering (such as edge enhancement), the contrast is superb, black levels are solid, and the colors - including skin tones - are all conveyed with ease. There's an impressive amount of detail in any given shot, and with such a pristine image, it lends to a fair amount of depth and dimensionality. The only minor quibble is that some of the lighting conditions can create an unnatural look, but I'm certain that's to be chalked up to a creative choice rather than a flaw of the transfer. Anyone who caught this on Netflix will likely be a bit more impressed with the presentation on this Blu-ray disc, regardless of how good their internet connection was at the time of viewing.
There isn't much music outside of the opening theme song, save for some bits that are occasionally used to enhance a comical quirk or unfolding drama, so most of what we get to listen to are the claustrophobic sounds of prison and a lot of dialogue. That said, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track flawlessly replicates the show's sound design. You really do get a sense for what prison could feel like of the 'closed in' environment ambience that's always at play, and the dialogue is always crisp and clean. There's a respectable dynamic range at play when the series needs to utilize it, too. After all was said and done, I was immersed... and because I really never want to find myself 'on the inside', that immersion was oddly satisfying and disturbing at the same time. Fans of the series will be pleased in the audio department, to say the least.
-Commentary for 'I Wasn't Ready' with Producers Jenji Kohan, Tara Herrmann and Mark Burley
-Commentary for 'Can't Fix Crazy' with Producers Jenji Kohan, Tara Herrmann and Mark Burley
-New Kid on the Block
-Mother Hen - Red Runs the Coup
Orange is the New Black - The Complete First Season was a breath of fresh air. Television is getting into more of a rut than ever nowadays, so it's nice to see a piece of original programming come along that actually offers something that's dramatic, yet expertly weaves a lighter tone to keep the subject matter from being too heavy to digest. It surprises me to say that about Jenji Kohan's work, since I thought she had lost that fine balance since the second or third season of Weeds, but while I'm still cautiously optimistic in regards to the future of this show, I think she's knocked it out of the park with the 13 episodes contained within this set. I think some of the general public has a misconception that just because a show debuts on the internet, it means the quality has to suffer. Well, that's certainly not the case. Fans of the show will love the technical presentation on the release, but newcomers? This one's worth a blind buy. Highly Recommended.
-About the Author- Michael Zupan is primarily a film guy, but has a variety of places where you can enjoy his work otherwise. Check Bytesizeimpressions.com for video game op-ed pieces and podcasts, and be sure to check out the sister site, Byte-Size Cinema, linked up top. This writer also contributes significantly to in-print magazines such as Minecraft Explorer and Fortnite Explorer!