Among the original shows bypassing broadcast TV and cable for online distribution, House of Cards on Netflix generated the biggest early buzz. But in terms of admiration, it was soon eclipsed by Orange Is the New Black.
Where House is a smart, twisty drama highlighted by Kevin Spacey's lead performance, Orange is something different, and more: less predictable, more interested in its characters, vivid and violent but in ways that owed more to logic and circumstance than to pulp fiction. Set in a women's prison, it is a great showcase for an ensemble of actresses diverse in age and ethnicity.
The series begins its second season on Netflix on June 6, but those without that streaming service can wallow in the first season when it arrives Tuesday on disc (about $40 on either DVD or Blu-ray).
Based on the memoir by Piper Kerman, the series stars Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman, an educated and privileged woman whose participation in a drug-smuggling scheme as a young adult has led her to federal prison. Inside, she finds a complicated and often nasty world, with inmates engaged in various struggles for self-fulfillment, redemption, power within the prison structure, or simple survival.
Over the course of the series, the events that brought them here are often seen in flashback, creating sympathy for some but more often understanding of why people do what they do — even when their reasons are terribly wrong.
Even as we are drawn into the inmates' lives, we see what is going on with the guards, the prison administrators and, outside the walls, Piper's boyfriend (Jason Biggs). Created by Jenji Kohan (Weeds), it is profane, complicated, surprisingly funny even at its most brutal, and watchable as it makes us rethink the ancient drama framework, the women-in-prison movie. The fine cast is anchored by Schilling but includes the likes of Kate Mulgrew, Laura Prepon, Natasha Lyonne and, as the unforgettable prisoner called "Crazy Eyes," Uzo Aduba.
Here's how good Orange is: Justified, a show I often love, had a major character in a women's prison this past season, and it was a largely unsatisfying story because it seemed so lacking in invention compared to Orange Is the New Black.
The disc sets add making-of featurettes, commentaries on two episodes and a blooper reel.