If you’re a twenty- or thirty-something with access to the internet, I find it hard to imagine that you’ve escaped hearing anything about Orange Is The New Black, the newest Netflix Original Series that has, as per the service’s M.O., dumped all 13 episodes of its first season online ready for immediate binge-watching. And oh, how that binging has occurred.
I saw a billboard for Orange Is The New Black and shrugged it off. Female prison dramedy? Sounded rather Lifetime-y. Then came the word-of-mouth. “Have you seen Orange Is The New Black?” Once… twice… not uncommon. But then it just kept coming. One person informed me that they had binged all 13 episodes in one day. Even people whose opinion I respected were proclaiming their love for the series, and this was a mere day or two after its July 11 premiere. Suddenly I had a monumental decision to make — watch Orange Is The New Black immediately and join the conversation, or shun it stubbornly and refuse to see it at all.
That’s how we do things in 2013. You either jump on the bandwagon or get left behind, and they aren’t giving us more than a day or two to decide which it is. Arrested Development? I jumped on. (Technically, I’d already boarded years ago.) House Of Cards? I stayed off. Netflix’s buzzy original House Of Cards was heralded by many as a show that met the standards of some of the best series of the last decade; I gave it four episodes and got bored. I still somewhat intend to finish it someday, but do I care if I ever get around to it? Not really. I have, however, already consumed all 13 episodes of Orange Is The New Black.I’m betting that Orange Is The New Black ends up being even more of a game-changer for Netflix. House Of Cards certainly made Netflix a formidable player in the swiftly transforming television landscape, and its recent Emmy nominations mean that the world is ready to accept internet as the new television, Netflix as the new HBO or Showtime or AMC. House Of Cards could have been a fluke, but its binge-watchability means that it largely came and went from the public discourse within the space of a month or so. When Game Of Thrones or Breaking Bad go off the air, they leave a little more of an aftertaste; House Of Cards was no such phenom. I haven’t seen House Of Cards T-shirts or GIFs. I’ve never heard it quoted. That doesn’t mean those things aren’t out there, just that they aren’t widespread enough to reach someone who hasn’t sought them out. But Orange Is The New Black is inescapable, and it’s only been available for streaming for less than two weeks.
In other words, Orange Is The New Black really is the new black. It’s here to stay.
I’ve already seen a GIF featuring Taystee, a sassy black character who is not merely a token sassy black characters, because there are a lot of black characters on Orange Is The New Black and nearly all of them are sassy. But then, practically every other character is, too. “Sassy” is a good word to describe just about anything that comes from Jenji Kohen, the creator of Weeds, and Orange Is The New Black has a similar zip and zing while also dealing, somewhat lightly, with some pretty heavy issues. Orange Is The New Black is not Mrs. Oz. It’s not gritty, it’s not depressing, and it’s only occasionally realistic. Yet it does shed light on a number of aspects of life in a federal prison that we probably didn’t know about; it feels fresh and vaguely educational, a show you can feel kind of good about yourself for watching despite its more superficial conceits. It’s both trashy and thought-provoking, slight and deep, smart and soapy. It’s probably already better than Weeds. (Sorry, Nancy Botwin.)
Orange Is The New Black is the story of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), whose lesbian relationship with an international drug smuggler (Laura Prepon) catches up with her a decade later just when she’s getting her life in order. Suddenly she’s sentenced to 15 months in prison for a crime she committed years ago; she’s now a luxury soap-maker, AKA not exactly Public Enemy #1. But the law is the law, and once Piper gets behind bars, she’s no better than any other criminal in the eyes of the state. Piper’s the pampered white girl with no clue how to handle herself in these waters — and yes, that makes for good television.
Though Piper is our way in to the show, and its primary focus, her self-righteousness can be a bit grating. Sometimes we want to reach into our TV screens and throttle her and scream, “Toughen up, bitch!” Her romantic melodrama makes her particularly unsympathetic (but not necessarily in a bad way). See, Piper’s drug-moving ex Alex is in prison with her (awkward!), which makes for a lot of juicy verbal catfighting. Orange Is The New Black is pretty smart in the way it handles the sexuality of Piper and a variety of other characters, ranging from full-on lesbian to dabblers with nothing better to do behind bars. It certainly doesn’t shy away from the sapphism — Orange Is The New Black probably has more gay females on screen at any given time than any episode of The L Word.
But it’s not just homosexuality that Orange Is The New Black deals with so freshly and adeptly. Orange Is The New Black has female characters from all walks of life — seriously, all of them — and gives each more than just one moment to shine. It wouldn’t surprise me if this show had one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse casts ever assembled, and that feels about right, given that it takes place in a prison. (Though Asia and the Middle East aren’t much represented.) There’s a transgender character, a mute character, a prison guard who lost a leg — and this might feel cheap and maudlin, except that even the most minor of characters are given a level of respect and attention to detail that is rare in television. Sure, some of them are stereotypes — perhaps even most of them are — but few are just stereotypes. (Even the character dubbed “Crazy Eyes” eventually gets her due.) The show deals quite frankly with racism — the ways in which birds of a feather flock together in “tribes,” and the judgments these groups make about each other. (The scene when Piper first walks into the cafeteria plays like Mean Girls with shivs.) Orange Is The New Black is certainly not color-blind, and given the subject matter, that’s good. When it comes to calling out racial stereotypes, it’s an equal opportunity offender. Everyone’s got their prejudices, from one guard’s obsessive lesbian phobia to undercurrents of misogyny that crop up in virtually all of the staff.
Orange Is The New Black is a well-conceived series, thoughtfully developed and cast in a way that seems to rather closely represent the population of a real female prison, overall. The first few episodes in particular take a jarring look at the (supposed) realities of incarceration, and characters who seem one-note at first glance end up having rich and complex backstories. Orange Is The New Black flashes back to a different inmates’ pre-prison life in each episode, including a depiction of how they landed in the pokey in the first place. Less necessary are flashbacks to Piper’s past; the ones detailing her relationship (and illegal activities) with Alex are solid, but less compelling are the ones about domestic bliss with her fiance. In general, we see a bit too much of Larry (Jason Biggs, forever masturbating on screen) in Season One — he and Piper’s drama comes off like a lot of White People Problems in a series where most of the supporting cast is given much grittier and juicier material.Is Orange Is The New Black somewhat uneven? Certainly. The other inmates’ flashback screen time seems cut down to a bare minimum, while a little of Piper’s waffling about doing the right thing can go a long way. Sometimes the show seems to be too self-consciously equal opportunity; almost every hardened bitch is revealed to have a heart of gold underneath. Curiously enough, the flashback sequences make nearly every female’s imprisonment the result of something a man coerced her to do; I’m not sure that’s accurate or a strong statement for feminism — can’t any of these bitches just be bad? (I guess there’s a reason this isn’t set in a maximum security penitentiary.) One inmate stole to pay for transgender surgery, another attempts to pay a store back for what she stole; another kills a man after he abuses a young girl; and so on. But maybe every woman in prison had good intentions somewhere down the line.
Given the sensitivity to most stereotypes, one sticks out like a sore thumb — the “villain” of the piece, Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett, a radical Christian who makes Piper her sworn enemy. Tiffany is the kookiest of Christians, with a handful of devoted followers who seem just as deranged — none of whom are given the treatment the rest of the diverse cast is allowed. (Her backstory is the only one we see in which the crime is in cold blood.) I don’t fault Taryn Manning’s performance, but the character feels too broad and arch for a show that started off in a more realistic place — one downside to binge-watching is that it’s much easier to feel a show go off the rails when it veers from realism to camp in the space of just a few episodes. (Another villain, the sadistic prison guard “Pornstache,” is also broad, but in such a kooky, off-beat way that I didn’t much mind.)
These are minor complaints, because through it all Orange Is The New Black is compulsively (perhaps obsessively) watchable. It has just enough dramatic weight to feel nourishing to the soul, but not so much that you need to pause and take a breather between episodes — I watched it in five days. (I wouldn’t recommend marathoning Breaking Bad or Mad Men in this way.) We spend so much time with so many characters that there isn’t time for any of them to wear out their welcome, except Pennsatucky and Piper from time to time. (Eventually, you stop blaming the rest of the population for bagging on her.) Orange Is The New Black draws from the same well as Weeds — a pampered white woman in over her head amidst criminals — but after a few seasons, Weeds wore out its welcome with characters that got less and less appealing, until there was absolutely nobody to root for or even care about. Orange Is The New Black may make its inmates a little too warm and cuddly at times, but at least that gives us something to latch onto.
Orange Is The New Black has a rather enormous cast, and all of them are up to the task. Standouts include Kate Mulgrew as Red, the tough-to-please kitchen “mother,” a scarlet-haired Russian who starves Piper for insulting her food; Danielle Brooks as Taystee, the sort of exuberant (but slightly undereducated) black girl you’d expect to find on reality TV, who is allowed to be more than just comic relief as she faces release; Natasha Lyonne as a rich girl-gone-junkie who is as lesbian as they come (unlike the dabbling Piper); and Yael Stone as Lorna Morello, the lipstick-loving romantic with a killer Long Island accent who holds onto the dream of an upcoming wedding even though her fiance hasn’t contacted her in months. But there are also compelling storylines featuring Laverne Cox as the transgender Sofia, who has a predictably complicated relationship with her wife and son, and a surprisingly sweet flirtation between new inmate Daya (Dascha Polanko) and prison guard John (Matt McGorry, the sole likable male in this bunch), that quickly grows uber-complicated.
Come this time next year, the Emmys’ Best Supporting Actress category should be overstuffed with votes for a half dozen of these players, which might unfortunately end up ruling them all out. (Can we add a “Best Supporting Actress From Orange Is The New Black” category, Emmys? I promise, there’s plenty of competition.) Kate Mulgrew probably has the best shot at actually nabbing one, since her role is meatier than most and she has name recognition working in her favor (to Star Trek fans, anyway). Orange Is The New Black is an hour-long dramedy on the internet, so let’s hope it doesn’t end up competing in the drama category opposite shows like Game Of Thrones. If Girls is a comedy, then so is Orange Is The New Black, regardless of its running time.
Season One ends on a nicely dark moment, a bit of a cliff-hanger, guaranteeing that fans will be clamoring to get their next fix. Given the level of buzz it has generated in less than two weeks, it seems pretty clear that it can only get bigger. It may be the first streaming-only TV series to truly compete with the best of the best, water cooler-wise. Internet is the new TV, Netflix is the new Showtime, and Piper Chapman is the new Nancy Botwin. And I say it’s not a moment too soon, because I’m tired of paying for 4,000 cable channels when I only watch two. The faster Netflix forces its new competitors to change their outdated models of entertainment delivery, the better.