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Orange’ is Netflix’s best original series

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Taylor Schilling, center, portrays Piper Kerman, whose memoirs are the basis for the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black.

Three and a half stars

Orange Is the New Black Season 1 now streaming on Netflix.

Netflix’s original series offerings have been a bit underwhelming so far, but while Orange Is the New Black certainly has its flaws, it’s also the streaming service’s most distinctive series to date, with a unique identity and a cast of characters you wouldn’t see on any other TV show. Based on the memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman, Orange follows its version of Piper (Taylor Schilling) as she serves a 15-month sentence in a minimum-security prison in upstate New York. A stable, upper-middle-class college graduate with a fiancé (Jason Biggs) and a burgeoning bath-products business, Piper is convicted of carrying money for a drug smuggling ring, a mistake she made a decade earlier while in a relationship with a lesbian drug importer (Laura Prepon).

The naïve Piper, far removed from her one criminal act, serves as an audience surrogate to explore the strange world of the women’s prison, which creator Jenji Kohan (Weeds) portrays as an off-kilter mix of familiar elements and surprising moments. Early in the first episode, a guard tells Piper, “This isn’t Oz,” and indeed Orange is far different from that violent, dark HBO drama set in a maximum-security men’s prison. There’s virtually no violence on this show, and while prison is serious and scary for Piper, it’s also a fascinating world that can be funny and even inspirational at times.

Kohan opens up the storytelling beyond Piper’s perspective by including flashbacks focused on a different fellow inmate in each episode, which highlights the strength and diversity of the ensemble cast, but is also sometimes a little distracting, especially when there are separate flashbacks to Piper’s life in the same episode. But given the limited shelf life of Piper’s story (and the fact that the show has already been renewed for a second season), it’s smart for Kohan to showcase the range of characters and stories in her setting.

The mix of colorful, over-the-top characters and serious situations can sometimes result in tonal inconsistency, but the bold, creative and occasionally messy Orange is preferable to any number of dreary, by-the-numbers premium cable (and Netflix) dramas.

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