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