Netflix subscribers were treated to a new series (from Netflix) on July 11th called “Orange is the New Black”. Created by Jenji Kohan, of Weeds fame, this is real life story based on Piper Kerman’s year in a women’s federal prison. It truly is one of the best shows I have seen in recent years, full of rich characters and great storytelling.
We follow the story of Piper Chapman, a well to do woman about to get married, who is sentenced to 15 months in prison. She was involved with a drug runner, who was her ex girlfriend, and they are now both serving time in the same facility.
Spoiler Alert – I will be discussing the entire first season, so if you haven’t watched all 13 episodes you may not want to read this post until you do so.
I could probably do 2 or 3 posts full of great performances of this show, there are so many. Here are my 12 favorite:
#12. Uzo Aduba as “Susanna (Crazy Eyes) Warren”
Crazy Eyes was enamored with Piper when she first arrived at Litchfield Prison. Scaring Piper a bit, Susanna comes on a tad strong and refers to her as her wife and calls her Dandelion. When Piper rebuffs her, Crazy Eyes lives up to her name and gets very angry. In a running theme of the show, the characters that we are introduced to in the first couple episodes, we judge harshly, just as Piper is doing. As we get to know these people, we realize there is so much more to them. Crazy Eyes is a perfect example. In a heartfelt scene with Piper, near the end of the season, Susanna, who usually erratic and bouncy, is now calmly laying on a bed talking about going to the psych ward. How horrible it is, and doesn’t know why she was sent there or why people call her Crazy Eyes. Great scene by Aduba, who brings this character an unexpected depth.
#11. Danielle Brooks as “Tasha ‘Taystee’ Jefferson”
Taystee is a playful soul always looking to have fun. Her best friend is Poussey and the two of them pretty much run the black tribe. Taystee cuts a deal with Piper early on, something to eat for a lock of her hair. Then Taystee walks around prouder than anything with a curly blond lock of hair among her waves of black. We see her actually get released from prison and going through mixed emotions about it. Once she gets out, she has nowhere to go. Realizing she has more of a life inside prison than she does outside, she gets herself back in. It is sad but true for many inmates who have been in for a long while and the adjustment to the real world is too much to handle. Brooks plays a fantastic character here and plays off the other women so exceptionally well.
#10. Yael Stone as “Lorna Morello”
Lorna is driving the van to pick up the new inmates when we first see her. Realizing that she herself is an inmate, Piper says “They let you drive the van?” And in her (not really sure what kind) accent, basically lays out the ins and outs of what the newbies are to expect. She describes the separations of race, not as racial, but as tribal. Everyone knows what their place is in their tribe. We see her have an intimate relationship with Nicky and assume they are together. We soon learn that Lorna is planning her wedding, to a man, once she gets out. Unfortunately, it appears that Lorna’s boyfriend has moved on, as she hasn’t heard from him since she got in. Lorna is so optimistic though, and all the other girls go along with her wedding talk even though they know it probably isn’t going to happen.
#9.Vicky Jeudy as “Janae Watson”
Janae is also a new inmate that comes in at the same time as Piper. She is angry right off the bat, very defensive. She was a track star but getting mixed up in the wrong crowd got her sent her to prison. Her back story does a good job of showing that all it takes is just one tiny choice to set forth the path of your life. She is the first inmate, that we see, get sent to solitary confinement or the SHU. There is a great scene after she gets out of her standing in the sun, reminiscent of Shawshank Redemption. As time goes on she lowers her defenses and is one of the more fun personalities at Litchfield.
#8. Jason Biggs as “Larry Bloom”
The men in this series are certainly not as intriguing as the women are. Biggs does a great job trying to be the patient, understanding fiancée of Piper. His unraveling is one of the harder stories to watch. He loves Piper so much, he was willing to overlook all her shortcomings in her former life, and stand by her side. She really wants him to wait for her and believes in her heart that they will be married once she gets out. Yet, her life is changing dramatically,and Larry’s basically stays the same. I think this is a very understated role, Biggs needs to go through this roller coaster of emotions that Larry would be going through and that is difficult to do. Not only does he have to deal with the fact his girlfriend was dating a woman who transported drug money, now she is locked up with her. One of the best scenes in the whole season is when he comes to the prison to see Alex. He does a great job at being this protective boyfriend at the same time being extremely jealous of this woman, who then tells him it isn’t her he needs to worry about it is Piper.
#7. Natasha Lyonne as “Nicky Nichols”
When we first meet Nicky, she is probably the closest thing to the stereotypical woman in prison model that we are used to. A former junkie, gay and very street smart. As we get to know Nicky, as with most of these characters, there is much more to her. In her back story we realize that she is just craving some motherly love from her snob of a mother. Red, in turn, fills that role for her in prison and she becomes very close with Red and her group. She also forms a nice bond with Alex, that you would expect to turn sexual, but doesn’t until the very end. She provides a lot of the comic relief in this place and doesn’t take anything to seriously. Lyonne does a great job depicting Nicky as a hard-bitten soul who always shows just a glimmer of heart to let us know she really is a good person.
#6. Michelle Hurst as “Miss Claudette”
Miss Claudette is feared by most of the inmates. She is an older woman who is very strict about what goes on, especially in her room. Piper ends up being roommates with her and they get off on the wrong foot, to say the least. Eventually she softens up to Piper and the two have a nice friendship. Claudette’s hopes are exhausted, she barely even cares about attempting her parole. Once the man that she has loved for several years returns, sans wife, Claudette has a renewed look on life. She is working hard to be kinder to people and enlists Piper to help her with her parole. When she gets denied, Claudette falls hard, she begins choking the new young female prison guard. The last we hear of her is that they are taking her to Maximum Security. Let’s hope this isn’t the last we see of Miss Claudette.
#5. Laverne Cox as “Sophia Burset”
Sophia is a Transgender woman who struggles with missing her wife and son. Her wife Crystal has stood by her through the transformation and now through prison, but it is wearing on her. Sophia can only watch her drift further and further away. The resident hair stylist, Sophia is very caring and listens to the other inmates problems very objectively. She creates a strong bond with Sister Ingalls, a nun that is also incarcerated. Cox portrays Sophia as this gentle giant among all these aggressive women. Sophia could kick all their asses time and time over, but once you get to know her, she is last women in there that would pick a fight.
#4. Kate Mulgrew as “Galina (“Red”) Reznikov
We are first introduced to Red as the head of the kitchen. She is insulted by a remark from Piper, and we realize that this women is in a very powerful position, even though, she herself is an inmate. Cutting Piper off from any food, Piper spends the first few days starving because of her insult. She gets back in her good graces once she finds something that Red can use and makes a peace-offering. We learn here, that there is much more to Red than a tyrant in an apron. Outside she and her husband were involved with the Russian Mob and inside she has taken the junkies under her wing to keep them off drugs. She is running a trade ring through the produce in the kitchen and when one of the guards finds out, it is a straight downward spiral for poor Red. The last shot of her is in the lunch line and the new head of the kitchen, is now denying her food, just as she had done to Piper in the first Episode.
#3. Taryn Manning as “Tiffany (“Pennsatucky”)Doggett
A meth addict, Doggett goes around the prison praising the lord’s name, and persecuting all who do not believe the same. Manning’s performance here is what makes this character shine. Her scraggly hair and funky teeth do not matter to Doggett, she is confident the Lord will guide her in the right direction. She hates Alex, which prompts Alex and Piper to mess with her in thinking she is a true Christian healer. This lands her in psych, and even though Piper is the one to get her out, she has it out for them. The season ends with an emotional confrontation between Tiffany and Piper. Piper is at her absolute lowest point we have seen her, and Tiffany is relentlessly tormenting her. The last episode ends with Piper beating the hell out of Doggett right after Healy turned his back on them.
#2. Laura Prepon as “Alex Vause”
I have to admit, going into this I wasn’t too excited about Prepon in this role. I was not a huge fan of Donna on That 70’s show, yet I don’t think that was any fault of Prepon. What I am getting at is that I was blown away by her performance of Alex, the ex-girlfriend of Piper, and the reason this story is unfolding. A drug smuggler who fell head over heels for the straight, doe-eyed blonde girl. We learn from her back story that she was a poor, nerdy girl, who got bullied a lot in school. Her Dad is an aging, has-been rock star, that she doesn’t meet until she is in her 20’s. Piper leaves Alex after having enough of her life of crime. Alex was then hurt by Piper for leaving her at her most vulnerable state, when her Mom died. Yet there is this connection and chemistry between them that is electric. One of the things that Prepon does so great is give glances and looks that says so much more in a scene than words ever could. The glasses are a perfect touch, a constant reminder of this badass drug smuggler, who is really just that nerdy little girl trying to find her way in the world.
#1. Taylor Schilling as “Piper Chapman”
It is probably cliché to say that the star of the show pulls off the best performance, but in this case I have to give it up to Schilling. Piper is an amazingly complex woman and Schilling plays each scene with exactly what is needed. Piper is always both sides of the coin. She is in love with Larry, her fiance, and at the same time falling back in love with her ex girlfriend Alex. She is selfish and privileged, but always tries to do the right thing for others. She can be weak, but yet has this inner strength that comes out blazing when she needs it to. She is naive in so many ways , but has also led a wild and exciting life. Every time Schilling is on-screen she absolutely nails the emotions that Piper must be feeling. I do believe that she makes this show what it is, and it would be hard to picture anyone else in this role. That is what makes a great performance.
I can’t go without including the performance of Regina Spektor in the opening credits. The song “You’ve Got Time” is so brilliant and the pictures of just the eyes and mouths of the inmates to go along with it, is pure perfection.