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10 Reasons "Orange Is the New Black" Is One of 2013's Best Shows

By Sarah Carlson & Dustin Rowles | TV Reviews | July 18, 2013 | Comments ()


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Not many were paying attention to Netflix’s latest original series, “Orange Is the New Black,” during the lead-up to its online premiere last Thursday. Without the gravitas of big-name actors (“House of Cards”) or the Internet hype for a beloved and resurrected show (“Arrested Development”), the company’s latest venture into original programming was mostly under the radar. Thanks to all 13 episodes (at approximately 50 minutes each) being released at once and word of mouth online, however, news about the show quickly spread as more and more began to devour Jenji Kohan’s (“Weeds”) latest creation revolving around inmates at a women’s federal prison in Litchfield, N.Y., and inspired by Piper Kerman’s 2011 memoir of the same title. It’s hard not to binge on the series (most of the Pajiba staff has already finished and all are enamored with it), not just as a way to try to get ahead of possible spoilers, but because the show is just too good for someone to stop watching. The year is only halfway over, but “Orange Is the New Black” — a deeply human, funny, moving, realistic, progressive dramedy about life and the bad decisions we’re all destined to make — can easily be declared one of the best new series of the year.

Here are 10 reasons why:

10. In “Orange is the New Black,” viewers are given a sparsely set, bare-bones antidote to the slick, lavishly produced television shows we’re accustomed to seeing. No explosions, no remote shooting locations. Most of the action takes place at the prison in the same several rooms (sleeping quarters, cafeteria, common room, etc.). The setting demands we actually pay attention to and take the substance seriously.

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9. It forces us to root for people who make poor decisions and appreciate the fact that we all make poor decisions because we’re human. As one of the inmates, Tricia (Madeline Brewer) says at one point, we all make bad decisions, just not the same ones. Main character Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) finds her well-educated, well-off, pretty self in prison thanks to a dumb mistake she made in her early 20s transporting drugs for a cartel. (She was dating one of its drug smugglers at the time; oh, the things love makes us do.) When that member gets caught, Piper’s name gets mentioned, and it’s off to prison for 15 months. Other inmates are there for a variety of reasons — drugs, theft, fraud, etc. — but in many ways, what got them to this point is moot. They’re there now, so they have to deal with it. It is worth noting, however, that Piper is obviously the odd one out. “Orange” distinctly acknowledge that the nation’s justice system disproportionately punishes the poor decisions of people of color and people in poverty.

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8. In Piper, the TV landscape is thankfully graced with a flawed female protagonist who isn’t completely neurotic or always making bad decisions. Piper is fairly average. She begins her stint at Litchfield as naïve, to be sure, but she is completely relatable and believable as someone still trying to orient herself to this new life she is forced to lead. She isn’t an anti-hero a la the divisive Nancy Botwin from “Weeds.” She isn’t the designated “good” girl or “bad” girl — she just is, and it’s refreshing. She also deftly presents a character who isn’t easily pegged into one sexual category. That drug smuggler she dated? Her name is Alex Vause, played by Laura Prepon. Naturally, Alex also is an inmate at Litchfield, and Piper has some self-analyzing to do.

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7. Schilling does an excellent job as Piper, but the series would be nothing without its amazing ensemble. Every character that appears makes an impact, from the comedic relief among the inmates (Danielle Brooks as Taystee, Samira Wiley as Poussey and Uzo Aduba as Crazy Eyes are favorites) to the ones that shouldn’t be messed with, notably Kate Mulgrew as Red and Natasha Lyonne as Nicky. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of “Orange” is how through it, so many different women are represented, from those of different races to different sexual orientations.

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6. The variety of women here is so important it gets two reasons. Just watch the opening credits to get an idea of the diversity:

In “Orange,” we’re presented with one of the first, fully fleshed, sympathetic transgendered characters we’ve ever seen in TV with Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox), who began life as a man. We see her struggles to know herself and maintain relationships with her family (she has a wife and son on the outside), and she is not a walking stereotype by any means. We’re also presented with unconventional love interests, such as Dayanara Diaz (Dascha Polanco). She is beautiful, but she also is the kind of woman not typically getting screen time on standard TV fare. This series lets all kinds of women have their time to shine, and it is glorious.

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5. The men in the series get their moments, too. Some of them are sweet; some of them are sadistic. Most fall in the middle with Jason Biggs as Piper’s faith fiancé Larry Bloom leading the way. Larry could easily be a one-note character, but he is given flaws and struggles to work with right alongside Piper, even as they are separated. (This isn’t a maximum security prison; visitation is allowed and they can hug each other — Piper even has access to a phone to call friends and family.) The main male prison guards/counselors that interact with the inmates — Sam Healy (Michael Harney), George “Pornstache” Mendez (Pablo Schreiber) and John Bennett (Matt McGorry) — are all complex and bring their own different motivations to work with them each day. The help round out a great ensemble.

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4. Jenji Kohan’s knack for social commentary mixed with humor is perfect for a prison story. “Orange Is the New Black” is as funny as “Weeds” in its early years, but this time around, Kohan has found a way to infuse an added level of poignancy — and dare we say sweetness? — to the overall vibe of her stories. NPR nerds will both laugh and cringe at barbs sent their way (look for the Ira Glass/”This American Life” running gag about halfway through, as well as Taystee and Poussey’s impersonation as black women of white women), but the series isn’t about leveling blame in any one direction. The nation’s prison system has serious problems, but they aren’t ones that are easily fixed.

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3. Not since “Six Feet Under” have we seen such a seamless use of the medium to transform the use of a flashback into profound, important context without it being heavy-handed. “Lost” used the flashback gimmick as well, but “Orange Is the New Black” betters the process by simplifying it. Here, flashbacks aren’t used to tell complete, second story arcs. They mainly offer glimpses at the inmates’ lives outside of prison and what led them to being locked away, although specific crimes aren’t always detailed. The flashbacks flesh out the characters without distracting from the main storylines, and they work wonderfully.

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2. It traffics in stereotypes, but it also challenges and complicates them. Lesbian jokes abound, but so do honest portrayals of lesbians. Religious fanatics are around, too (Taryn Manning is unrecognizable as Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett), and race isn’t just a topic that pops up — it is part of the fabric of prison life. If Ryan Murphy were the showrunner, everyone would be rolling their eyes from the heavy-handedness. But Kohan finds a nice balance addressing touchy issues.

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1. Most importantly: It humanizes the in-humanized. In other words, the prison transforms labels — felons, thieves, murders, embezzlers — into real human beings and reminds us that, even in prison, life isn’t put on hold. Life is being led. “Orange Is the New Black” will both make you laugh and make you think — it is both entertaining and good — and shows like this should be treasured.

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  • maraleia

    Hi Sarah and Dustin...great article just an FYI in this sentence from your article that I've copied here you need to edit it to say transgender not transgendered. Thanks!

    In “Orange,” we’re presented with one of the first, fully fleshed,
    sympathetic transgendered characters we’ve ever seen in TV with Sophia
    Burset

  • Michael Murray

    I am the contrarian here, I'm afraid. I like the show the same sort of way that I like a lot of other shows, by which I mean it's disposable and entertaining enough if you don't think too hard. I find it very heavy-handed and author-centric. It reminds me, in a bad way, of Diablo Cody in that way ( I have only watched four episodes, so there is tons of room for positive growth), in that Piper, the real author, is heroically, charmingly and relatably everywhere. The music is used as awkward and cloying cues, and the audience is always forced in the direction the show wants us to go. The characters are cardboard and OITNB never engages in anything beyond the superficial. It's a very, very light entertainment, and if it could actually leaven that with some moments of sincere drama, tension and horror, well, we'd be talking about an entirely different caliber of show. As it is, it's another over-rated Netflix offering, suitable for a prime time, cares-about-the-Oscars kind of audience.

  • Lauren Mckenzie

    Why is no one discussing Gay Donna? Best part of the whole damn show (besides Crazy Eyes).

  • PuraPuma

    I'm in love with this show. I feel like it is a show about women for women - doesn't matter that they are in prison. I have like 4 more episodes. I watch 2-3 at a time and it feels glorious. "Crazy Eyes" scene with the "Scared Straight" girls was magificent!

  • Maryscott O'Connorm

    BINGED on it. Loved it. Loved.

  • Thrs Prtw

    Oh please. What can Ryan Murphy do right?

  • Troy

    My new favorite show. My only complaint is that the season wasn't a little longer, not because it was too short, but because its so good that I wish I had more to watch. Bring on season 2!!!

  • I'm about halfway through with the episodes and I know I'm going to finish this weekend. I've been watching a couple episodes at a time and its been working great, because by that point I need a break from Piper.

  • Hazel Dean

    Such a great show. We binge-watched it from Sunday to Tuesday, and I'm wishing I'd exercised more restraint, since we have to wait until 2014 for more episodes. Oh well, I'm just glad we're getting a second season!

  • I thought I was going to have beg my husband to watch this one with me. Fortunately, the hot lesbian sex & nudity in the first episode convinced him.

  • Wednesday

    I had watched the whole thing by the end of the weekend. I was initially skeptical because I HATED "Weeds", but by the end of the second episode, I was a convert. I even tried to only watch two episodes at a time, but caved in quickly and blew through most of them on Sunday.

    None of the characters are simple. You think you're going down some familiar stock plot point, but you always derail about 3/4 of the way through. It reminds me a lot of "Game of Thrones" in that you can find ways to sympathize or change your opinion of even the nastiest characters. Never thought I'd have ANY sympathy for Pornstache, but even he gets some understanding.

    If they released another season tomorrow, I'm sure I'd finish that one in a three-day binge, too.

  • If it's indeed doing what you're saying it's doing for the image of people in prison, then this is a very important show and I'm gonna be tuning in this weekend. Every bit of effort put into scrubbing off the 'prison as vengeance' mural that our society has daubed onto the collective consciousness is very welcome.
    Plus it sounds like a right laugh.

  • calell26

    This show was completely impossible to stop watching. I had to marathon it. And this does a really good job of outlining why the show is so different and why it is so watchable. But my only question is: why is Sasha Alexander in her Rizzoli and Isles softball playing outfit in the photo up top? Anyway, that makes me laugh almost as much as Taystee!

  • Lauren_Lauren

    The opening sequence is about 40 seconds too long. Ain't nobody got time for that!

    I'm not overwhelmed by the show . . . maybe just "whelmed". But I love the diversity, the complete characters, and a show filled with interesting women. I hope it spreads.

  • competitivenonfiction

    "I know you can be overwhelmed, and you can be underwhelmed. But you can you ever just be whelmed?"

    "I think you can in Europe."

    (PS I love my sketchers, but I don't have a Prada backpack...)

  • Uriah_Creep

    You really can't ask for much more than a good whelming.

  • On the fifth episode and loving it so far. Really hoping it stays on the rails in subsequent seasons and doesn't follow Weeds's trajectory.

  • ChomskyTheBear

    SOOO glad NY is experiencing a heat wave. I have an excuse to lay my ass down in my uncle's delicately air-conditioned family room and watch this all in two days... Now if only his wife would remove the vinyl from all the chairs...

  • L.O.V.E.

    Well put. My favorite actress is probably Samira Wiley. I can see her going on to do some movies.

    This is much better than anything from post-Season 2 Weeds.

  • Hazel Dean

    I'd second that, re: Samira Wiley. She's great in this, and also the cutest character on the show.

  • melissa82

    I watched the first 4 episodes last night - the first I was just killing an hour before I went to a friends to scope out her new place.....and then while I was at said friend's I kept checking the clock to see if it had been a respectable amount of time before I could leave to watch more. "If I go home now I'd be an asshole- but I could watch 4 more tonight...... (insert Paul Rudd hunched over sigh from WHAS) pffffine I'll stay and pretend I'm a social being for awhile longer...."

  • AudioSuede

    Yes, yes, a THOUSAND times yes. Crazy Eyes in the "scared straight" episode? Gold. Pure gold. The whole season is a masterpiece. I could not be more excited to be watching something so fresh, so smart, so honest, so perfectly balanced (how a show with subjects this heavy can make me laugh as hard as it does is totally beyond me), and so fair.

  • Mark

    Beautifully put together, you've absolutely sold me.

    I was on board throughout, and intrigued to see what the show could offer, but the last point in particular, "humanizing the in-humanized". There's nothing sadder to me than people shut aside from humanity and forgotten about, written off as criminals, misfits, crazy people. Anything providing a real voice to them is going to really strike a chord with me.

  • Sirilicious

    Trivia time!

    At one point Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) tells Red (Kate "star trek" Mulgrew),
    "I thought i was like, your Spock"
    "My what?"
    "Your right hand, girl friday, your VP"

    Also, Red's real name is Galina, which means chicken. Find out why this is mildly hilarious in episode 5.

  • Aaron

    Isn't it Gallina that means Chicken (hen), not Galina?

  • Sirilicious

    Really? You are going to accuse Red's parents of spelling her name wrong? In Soviet Russia, spelling (body)checks you!

    (and it indeed means live female chicken, not chicken meat)

  • idiosynchronic

    "the ones that shouldn’t be messed with, notably Kate Mulgrew as Red."

    Of everything that's been said, why does this finally sell it for me? #trekforever

  • Viking

    I kept wondering when Kate Mulgrew would show up in the series. Didn't realize it was her for almost 3 episodes.

  • Nicholas

    I'm on episode 7 and my jawdropped when reading this article. Can't believe I didn't recognize her.

  • junierizzle

    I'm still not feeling it

  • Lachlan Cartland

    I must be feeling it for you. Cause i'm really feeling it.

  • John W

    Looks good. I'll have to wait until it comes out on disc.

  • Sirilicious

    Or torrent.

  • Leonard

    Watch it on Netflix yo.

  • John W

    I have an netflix account but I don't do streaming. They'll release it on disc like they did with House of Cards.

  • apsutter

    I can't wait to watch this. I'm glad that it turned out so well and I love seeing so many women in one show. Also, I'm psyched to see Taryn Manning getting more work.

  • TherecanbeonlyoneAdmin

    After the first two episodes I almost turned it off... then finished binging the whole series last Sunday. It really is terrific if a little flawed. I really enjoyed how the characters grew as the show went on, Crazy Eyes being a prime example. I was beginning to get a little tired of Pipers continual battling of foot in mouth disease though.

  • competitivenonfiction

    I like it when they back off Piper and focus on the others. Piper seems like she's always trying to be the smartest girl in prison and it's exhausting (and ridiculous).

  • Slim

    We started it two nights ago and I fear that we might burn through them this weekend.

  • sjfromsj

    This list sums up everything I love about this show. I have nothing constructive to add, I just wanted to brag that I know Madeline Brewer, so I have been super pumped about this. It's her first screen credit, and I had no idea before I started watching that it was a sizable role. I've kind of turned into a stage mom.

    Also, I want to start advocating for a Taystee and Poussey spin-off. Or, at the very least, just an episode in the second season devoted to them.

  • ERM

    I really like this show, but I don't particularly like the main character. Every other character is better, and more interesting.

    And every scene with Jason Biggs is dull.

  • Lachlan Cartland

    He does a great job of getting me to like Alex. but then so does Alex.

  • TherecanbeonlyoneAdmin

    I like that I don't particularly like Piper from episode to episode. She's deeply flawed in a lot of ways and in many instances in worse ways than the rest of the prisoners. I think it allows us to empathize with the other inmates a lot easier.

  • Lachlan Cartland

    I didn't like her at first. But she's grown on me now that she has wizened up a little.

  • AudioSuede

    Plus, she fluctuates, as they all do. There are moments where I despise her for her choices, and then moments where she's absolutely badass. The "scared straight" episode might have been the tipping point for me; that monologue was intense.

  • DeistBrawler

    Morello (Yael Stone) is my favorite. She's adorable. I adore every moment she's on the screen.

  • Viking

    I like the character but I can not place her accent and it is really distracting. It took a few episodes to place her as Northeastern U.S. Does anyone know if that is that really her accent or is she just doing a bad job. It seems like it is all over the place, or was for a while. I'm looking forward to her backstory and Suzanne's as well.

  • mairimba

    You mean her accent on the show? It's either from the Bronx or Brooklyn. Maybe even New Jersey.

  • koko temur

    She is australian.

  • Lachlan Cartland

    I love her accent! It sounded like a squeaky Brooklyn accent to me. Anyway, I agree that she is a delightful character, I really hope she gets more screen time next season.

  • lowercase_ryan

    I hate sounding so cliche, but the show is refreshing.

  • dammitdamian

    I hit the play button and found myself immediately sucked in, but that might have had to do with the gratuitous nudity that graced the screen for the first 5-10 minutes of the show, and then was never seen at that level again! It was enough to get me, as a dirty perverted bastard, to put down my cell phone and actually watch the show.

  • sarah

    I've been dying for a new show to watch, I have a feeling i'm gonna love this one.

  • Giroux IA

    Orange is The New Black does what many shows fail to do (or can only seem to do every now and again); and that is to make me care what happens to all the characters. It's pretty amazing that I can be both terrified of and sympathetic to a character like "Crazy Eyes." Pitch perfect tone to this show.

  • HT

    Taryn Manning's character is giving so many shades of Lindsay Lohan, the episode she goes on the warpath against Vause and Piper and someone referenced "release the Cracken" (Celebitchy's face nickname for L.L.) I just about lost it!

  • mairimba

    I'm two episodes away from finishing it. It's one of the best shows I've seen all year (Rectify is the best). Suzanne/Crazy Eyes has to be my favorite character. I lost it when she was trying to be be scary and intimidating by reciting Shakespeare to the delinquent girls. LOST IT!

  • Aaron C

    +1 for Rectify. I can't believe Sundance didnt order more episodes for the first season.

  • PuraPuma

    YES! I like how in the first few episodes we are almost lead to believe she's just the same as other inmates - maybe from the streets. Then her white (probably adoptive) parents show up and are very classy. She then breaks out the Shakespeare and it shows how educated she is. Love her!!! And she favorited my tweet on Twitter so I love her even more now.

  • Yossarian

    Such a good show.

    Sarah & Dustin touch on a lot of the social issues (portrayals of race, gender, sexuality, class, not to mention the American criminal justice system itself) that make this show not just compelling, but really important. For those of you who haven't tried it yet I want to point out that while Orange Is the New Black initiates and provides context and commentary for discussion of these issues the show does not insist on dictating that conversation to you. It's not preachy or sanctimonious, it just is. And pretty much everyone should watch it, and hopefully think about it and talk about it, too.

  • Yeah, it's okay, I guess.

  • pajiba

    COME ON COREY.

  • Eva

    Also super loving this show!!! I have had the Regina Spektor opening song in my head for a week now. But I am very sad that I only have the very last episode left and then it's over!! Waaahhh!!

  • Daniel Lewis

    I'm loving this show, but I can't watch more than 3 episodes in one sitting. This show is some heavy shit. Crazy Eyes for all the Emmys.

  • Alan

    I didn't realize it came out last Thursday. It just showed up in my suggestions on Netflix and I accidentally consumed them all in two days.

  • Sara

    I started binge-watching this show today and I am so thoroughly impressed with it. Okay, ready for ep 6...

  • lillie

    I am absolutely LOVING this show. I'm 8 episodes in and the the only reason I haven't finished the entire series already is because I'm trying to savor it, like a good book that I don't want to end. In fact, so far, I'm impressed with Netflix and the series they have created. House of Cards was absolutely incredible and while Hemlock Grove was a bizarre trainwreck of batshit insanity, it was nevertheless a train wreck I COULD NOT stop watching.

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