In the opening scene of Orange is the New Black, the new Netflix series from Weeds creator Jenji Kohan, a close-up photo of a vagina is flashed at the camera. Beaver photos from within the prison are being leaked to an inmate fetish website, which is problematic from a public relations standpoint and also from a control and distribution perspective: someone on the inside has a cell phone and shouldn't.
The resulting investigation introduces the many prison guards that keep an eye on the many inmates throughout the federal prison, revealing to the audience who is green, who is sleeping with the inmates and who is too power hungry for their own good. Simultaneously, the affluent Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) is introduced to the prison population along with ex-lover Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), an international drug smuggler that left Piper holding a suitcase full of drug money.
Much like the memoir on which this series is based, My Year in Women's Prison, this world is introduced through Piper's eyes: she learns about the faux-hierarchy, wherein leaders of each racial piety are elected to liaise with prison officials, along with the basic pecking order. No punches are pulled during this introduction, with casual profanity, racial slurs and the occasional slapping match between angry Latina relatives being the quotidian.
Secondary characters, like the recently rehabilitated drug addict Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) and Piper's fiancé Larry Bloom (Jason Biggs), settle into the periphery, along with other recognizable actors sure to become more relevant as the first season progresses. Flashbacks to the incident that landed Piper and jail balance out the pilot episode, as do some hints at Nicky's background, suggesting that the series will jump back and forth in time, allowing occasional escape from the confines these prisoners are forced to dwell in.
Though some of the emotional connections forged at this early stage feel somewhat contrived, there is a fiercely candid dynamic and narrative complexity that suggests it eventually coheres (it does, within a couple of episodes). Amidst the casual topless nudity in prison showers and repeat visual trajectory of a labia, less sensationalist, grounded plot points and observations emerge—for one, Piper seeks opportune times to defecate in her new open concept washroom—that make this dramatically relevant and identifiable in a way that Weeds wasn't by the time the fourth season came around.
The characters, while mostly uniform in their limited vocabulary, each have something unique to bring to the table, adding some dramatic heft to the showy, often shocking, comic sensibilities of the show. The budding relationship between Nicky and Alex holds as much potential as the eventual reveal of the conflict between Piper and Alex. Peripheral storylines about a simultaneously abusive and maternal lunch room manager (Kate Mulgrew) and a romance between an inmate and a guard are only hinted at, leaving some dramatic appeal for future episodes.
And ignoring the fact that this is a well-acted, altogether fascinating, complex character tapestry, the many one-liners and crude conversations keep the laughs coming from beginning to end. It's not for the overly politically correct or morally vain, having a vast array of racial and sexual orientation-based perspectives that tend towards self-sustaining and casually critical.
This is easily the sort of show that could, and likely will, put Netflix on the map for necessary television viewing. It also seems that they already know this, having already picked the series up for a second season even before this first one has aired (or streamed).
Orange is the New Black premieres on Netflix on July 11th, 2013.