Orange Is the New Black may have a tough row to hoe come awards season. It’s more of a pure dramedy than almost any other current “television” series, give or take some Girls: Watch any given episode, and you’ll find cringe humor, serious character study, black comedy, heart-wrenching pathos, and, whenever Jason Biggs is onscreen, broad yuppie skewering. (Perhaps not coincidentally, these last bits are by far the least successful aspect of the show – though Biggs himself turned out to be a pretty good actor, American Pie movies be damned.)
But while Orange is tough to classify on paper, its tone is remarkably consistent – wry, confident, cynical without being hard to watch (at least most of the time). That appealing mix, coupled with its unique subject matter (the goings-on at a minimum security women’s prison), is why I’ve barely wanted to stop watching since I fired up the first episode last Friday.
I’m currently at season 1’s literal halfway point – 30 minutes into episode 7 – and if I hadn’t had to pause my binge to write this post, I’d probably be even closer to the end. The show just gets more gripping the further you get, mostly because of how later episodes manage to move beyond the narrow premise of its pilot.
Throughout Orange, we see events mostly from new inmate Piper Chapman’s point of view. She’s our entree into the self-contained society that is Litchfield prison; she’s also white, educated, relatively well-off, and within the 25-44 demographic, as are most of Netflix’s subscribers. It would have been easy enough to make Orange a pure fish-out-of-water story that kept its eyes firmly trained on Chapman – though that would have also been a shame, since Piper is one of the least interesting characters in the show’s universe.
Luckily, series creator Jenji Kohan recognized that – and made an executive decision early on to broaden Orange’s focus. “We wanted to write stories about all sorts of women and their experiences. But it’s very hard to sell a show about women of different colors and different ages and different socioeconomic backgrounds,” she explained to EW in a recent interview. “This way, we almost get to sneak in these amazing characters and amazing stories through this white girl going to prison.”
Orange privileges character over plot. Every episode since its first focuses on one of Piper’s fellow inmates, exploring her past via Lost-style flashbacks. (Yeah, the device is its own cliche at this point – but that’s just because it works so well.) They’re all so gripping that it’s tough to choose a favorite: I was partial to episode 3, which focuses on beautiful, transgender Sophia, until I got to episode 4, a showcase for proud Claudette. And I haven’t even gotten to the episode about Piper’s ex-lover Alex, which I’m assuming will come later in season 1’s run… or the one about Morello… or the one about Taystee…
Ugh! I don’t know how Orange manages to make even its smallest bit players (Crazy Eyes! Poussey! The blond girl with all the braids, whose name escapes me!) seem like fully formed human beings, but it does – which would be remarkable even if most of those characters didn’t also happen to be women, a facet of the population that movies seem to have given up on entirely.
Simply put, Orange Is the New Black is like nothing else on TV (or “TV,” as the case may be) right now – and if you haven’t started watching, you should remedy that by immediately opening Netflix in a new tab.
As for those who have also been sucked in: What do you think of the show? Which characters are you drawn to, and which could you stand to see less of? (Piper’s boring family goes without saying.) If you’ve devoured every episode already, what are your impressions of season 1 as a whole? And finally, how boss is that Regina Spektor-assisted title sequence?