‘Orange is the New Black’ is arrestingly funny

Jenji Kohan has it on lock with follow-up to 'Weeds'

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“Women in television” — and, particularly, the “Can women be funny?” question — is a very tired conversation now. It’s been done and dissected, and now, it should be put in the kitchen, where it can keep silent and make me sandwiches. And yet it keeps cropping up because, joking aside, women in comedy have some serious obstacles to overcome — like walking over cobblestoned streets in high heels.

Maybe jokes like that are part of the problem. Maybe not. But, for sure, there is a problem, and the new Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” may be the solution. Created by Jenji Kohan, the mind behind Showtime’s mother-deals-pot dramedy, “Weeds,” “Orange is the New Black” has a fairly simple premise with a masterfully intricate and nuanced execution.

If you haven’t binge-watched it yet, here’s the lowdown. The lead is Piper Chapman, based on the real-life Piper Kerman, who wrote the book that the TV series is based on. She’s a WASP-y young woman who, after college, flirted with danger in the form of a lesbian international drug trafficker and ended up with a 15-month sentence in federal prison. You know, that old story.

The novelty of the storyline, however, is only one of the more refreshing things “Orange is the New Black” has going for it. Given its premise and the bias of Kerman’s original book, this could’ve easily ended up like that awful Hilary Swank movie, “Freedom Writers,” in which an innocent white woman enters a tough situation with ethnic minorities only to rise above, learning more about life than she ever expected. It could’ve easily been made overly sentimental, vaguely racist or a Lifetime Original Movie. It’s most certainly not these things, and here’s why.

It has a sense of humor and it has an accurate sense of character. “Girls” was supposed to do that but ended up being an exercise in cringeworthy pain tolerance more than a comedic exploration of the young white woman’s plight. “Orange is the New Black” moves beyond Piper, moves beyond the idea of the hero or the anti-hero protagonist by giving over each episode, like the first season of “Lost,” to a different character — be that character bisexual, lesbian, transgender, black, Latina or even just misunderstood.

What this flashback, episodic format allows the show to do is create a full-fleshed community where these denoters of character (ethnicity, sexuality, class status) do not define the character. Each lady has her own brand of humor, her own sense of self. Taystee, the prison librarian, has principles. She’s had barbecue sauce on her titties, and she won’t allow Harry Potter to be fucked with. Crazy Eyes prefers “Shakespeare and shit”: “I want to play a role, like Desdemona or Ophelia or Clair Huxtable.”

Now, this all may sound like shit — cheap pop-culture references intended to add a dose of levity to a dire situation. But it’s not. It’s realistic conversation. And, more importantly, “Orange is the New Black” is one of the few comedic shows (maybe the only one) at the moment in which the plot and humor are not predicated on something to do with romantic relationships. It sounds so basic, and yet it’s critically lacking in not only television but in movies as well — to have plots and characters motivated by something other than “I think that guy or girl is hot.”

So, while the title “Orange is the New Black” recalls the triviality of fashion trends, there is nothing trivial about the show and the complex people it presents. Somehow, in prison, where one’s identity is supposedly erased, this show has found humanity.

Contact Jessica Pena at [email protected].