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Orange Is the New Black is juicy and subversive viewing

In looking over this weekend's TV menu, I initially regretted that I was unfamiliar with the works of author Debbie Macomber, who, I am assured, is a "No. 1 New York Times bestselling author." Then I erased the regret; I haven't a scintilla of interest in reading Macomber's books, no matter what status she holds in the book racket.

Next, I regretted that I had not read Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison by Piper Kerman. And so far, I have not erased my regret.

Cedar Cove (Sunday, W Channel, 8 p.m.) is based on a book by Macomber, and within the first few minutes of the first episode, you'll get the gist of her oeuvre, such as it is. A beautiful, seaside setting. Blue skies. A woman emerges from a cute abode and mounts her bicycle. She cycles away, smoothly, dressed in jeans and a pink sweater, with a pale pink scarf floating behind her. This is aimed at lady viewers, and if you go online, you can easily acquire the pink sweater, the scarf, the hair product used by the character and, possibly, the bike.

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The woman on the bike is Judge Olivia Lockhart (Andie MacDowell) and, by Jove, she cycles to work at the cute little courthouse in the super-cute town of Cedar Cove. (It's made somewhere near Vancouver for the Hallmark Channel.) There she administers justice wisely, helping folks with issues. For reasons that are unclear at first, the judge's mom seems to accompany her everywhere and hangs out in the judge's chambers.

It is in these chambers that Judge Lockhart encounters the new editor of the local paper, a rum cove named Jack Griffith (Dylan Neal), who is terrifically handsome and single. Soon, Jack is asking the judge's mom if Olivia is single. And you can see, with a rare vividness, where this nonsense is going.

Orange Is the New Black (just released on Netflix) is, by happy coincidence, a retort of sorts to the genre that Cedar Cove represents. That's its main strength. It is Netflix's best original series yet, but it doesn't put Netflix at the level of HBO as some scatterbrained reviews have claimed. It's just good, smart and well-paced adult entertainment.

Adapted loosely from Kerman's memoir about serving a 15-month sentence for money-laundering at a federal prison for women, it begins as a blunt mockery of the main character's pretensions. As bourgeois as all get-out and with a past she thinks is racy – a lesbian relationship with an international drug dealer (Laura Prepon) – Piper (Taylor Schilling) approaches prison with a burden of fears and assumptions. Some fears are realized, but the assumptions are slowly shattered.

The initial jokiness gives way to a spiky drama with flashes of intensely absurdist black comedy, and an array of targets are savaged. Mostly the targets are in the world Piper represents – her fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs) gets a particularly hard time. He's a wannabe writer and, through him, the entire media world is mocked.

From the few episodes that I've seen (there are 13 in the series), Orange Is the New Black expands and contracts deftly. The initial focus on Piper shifts to portraits of fellow inmates, an array of misfits whose stories are more complex than expected. Creator Jenji Kohan (Weeds) presents viewers with a rich alternative world inside the prison. There are suggestions at first that all the clichés of the prison-drama genre will emerge, but those clichés tend to be subverted.

And that's what makes the series worth your while – the subversion. Everything that is taken as a given in such silliness as Cedar Cove is upended in Orange Is the New Black. And that's not an easy achievement without being merely satirical. Everything about Cedar Cove is contrived to satisfy and sell to women viewers of a certain demographic, and that's hardly surprising given that Macomber has sold many millions of books. (The ladies talk about feeling fat all the time, and obsess about ice cream and pie.)

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Orange Is the new Black, on the other hand, thoughtfully addresses the messiness of life that never emerges in Cedar Cove.

Also airing this weekend

Rendezvous With Paul McCartney (Saturday, CBC NN, 9:30 p.m.) is a repeat of Friday's CBC special which, apparently, is this: "Rock 'n' roll legend Paul McCartney discusses his Quebec City concert, his passion and the 400th Anniversary of Quebec City." No doubt his thoughts on local history will be illuminating.

The Real Dirt on Gossip (Sunday CBC NN 8 p.m. on Passionate Eye) is a repeat of a lightweight, pop-sociology doc about, well, gossip. Academics explain how it's good for us to gossip, and how we learn about friends and foes through it. Celebrity-obsessed magazine editors say such things as this: "Gossip is essentially the foundation of civilization as we know it." And then former reality TV star Jon Gosselin, of Jon and Kate Plus Eight, explains how gossip, all of it wrong, ruined him.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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