Sort of a distaff "Oz" with more humor and fewer prisoners getting shanked, Netflix's latest original series "Orange Is the New Black" -- from "Weeds" writer Jenji Kohan -- proves to be a smart, solid, entertaining effort for the online streaming service. No wonder this drama with comedic moments has already been renewed for a second season to debut in 2014.
What differentiates "Orange" from HBO prison drama "Oz" is its point of view. "Oz" was a true ensemble, but "Orange" is a single-lead show as it follows Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) from life on the outside to incarceration at Litchfield, a fictional federal minimum security women's prison in upstate New York. The series is based on a memoir by author Piper Kerman about her own experience in Danbury Federal Correctional Institution in Connecticut after a money laundering conviction.
Viewers meet the fictional Piper with her fiance, Larry (Jason Biggs, "American Pie"), as she prepares to surrender herself for her conviction as part of an international drug smuggling ring.
Piper's sexuality has some fluidity to it and after college she fell in love with a woman, Alex (Laura Prepon, "That '70s Show"), whom she blames for her prison fate. But Alex didn't put a gun to Piper's head and force her to smuggle a suitcase full of drugs.
The series deals with Piper's past through flashbacks, which it also uses to great effect with all the characters Piper comes into contact with in prison. "Oz" did flashbacks to the crimes of its imprisoned characters, but "Orange" usually flashes back further, the better to build more fully realized, three-dimensional characters.
"Orange" is a strongly character-driven series. It introduces characters who seem one-dimensional at first, but then the show pulls back to reveal a more complicated set of influences. It's a little bit like "Lost" -- that show also used flashbacks to build its characters -- and it works exceptionally well in a prison setting.
Among the characters introduced in the first six episodes made available for review are enigmatic Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst), bullying Red (Kate Mulgrew, "Star Trek: Voyager"), hilarious/crazy Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) and recovering heroin addict Nicky (Natasha Lyonne).
If "Orange" has an Achilles' heel, it's the characters outside the bars. Pornstache (Pablo Schreiber), in particular, comes across like a caricature of a jerky, power-mad corrections officer. Even offsetting him with a sweet-faced C.O. (Matt McGorry) doesn't help; two caricature wrongs can't make a right.
But the depiction of the close-to-retirement, semi-sympathetic counselor Sam Healy (Michael Harney) seems spot on.
"Orange" cribs (in a good way) from "Weeds," often building each episode to a shocking development that's left hanging to be resolved at the start of the next episode. It's a smart tactic Ms. Kohan uses to hook viewers in and keep them hooked.
The show's expansive cast does a terrific job making a viewer believe the truth of their characters. And no one on this show allows vanity to get in the way of looking like, say, a recovering junkie as Ms. Lyonne does.
Ms. Schilling makes an appealing, girl-next-door lead character, the kind viewers can instantly sympathize with.
But it's Ms. Mulgrew who's the true revelation as the powerful Russian prison cook. Her Red is the mother hen of Litchfield, and she rules the other prisoners with an iron grip. Six episodes into the 13-episode first season and it's apparent that she's one tough cookie, but Red is also a more layered character with some depth. Ms. Mulgrew is probably the show's best known star, but this character is so different from Capt. Janeway on "Star Trek: Voyager" that it's easy to buy her in this new role.
Viewers who appreciate their TV characters complicated will appreciate the opportunity to go behind bars for this comedic, dramatic slice of women-in-prison life.
TV writer Rob Owen: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.