God, I am awesome at titling things.
Netflix has been making careful forays into original programming for a while now. No one really noticed Lilyhammer. Hemlock Grove was apparently a mess. House Of Cards debuted to solid reviews, but few outright raves, which was somewhat surprising given its impeccable creative pedigree. The resurrected Arrested Development was a miracle of sorts, but still a kind of disappointing, albeit in ways that probably would not have been helped by being on a traditional network. But in any case, digging up the corpse of a show a network cancelled years ago is no way to create a brand identity as a producer of original content.
Orange Is The New Black, the new series based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, is precisely how you make such a name. It’s not just the best show Netflix has produced so far, or the best show to premiere in the current wastes of summertime TV, but one of the best shows to air on any network(/streaming service) this year. And it shouldn’t work at all, with half a dozen aspects that would send any network dependent on advertiser revenue fleeing for the hills. It’s an hourlong comedy, a format no one seems very interested in pursuing. It’s a fairly realistic look at life in prison, which seems like a downer and turn-off for those shopping for a comedy. And it’s not like it’s the most intense, supermax/death row sort that would promise the maximum amount of life-or-death drama, but a minimum security place populated mostly by short-timers. And it’s a women’s prison, so the vast ensemble is extremely female-heavy, not to mention non-white, and they mostly look like actual women you know (we’re not going to pretend you don’t know a bunch of convicts, not here) rather than television stars. Finally, it has Jason Biggs in a non-pie molesting capacity.
Not that this is completely unprecedented. It’s been almost two decades since HBO started nabbing serious attention for its original programming with its own multiracial prison drama Oz. Very much like Netflix, its subscriber model meant that it could take chances on shows that advertisers wouldn’t touch, because edginess and the ability to provide things that a standard cable package couldn’t are of higher importance to a premium service. Whereas a traditional TV channel thrives on shows inoffensive enough that people won’t tune away during commercials, a subscription network needs to be splashy enough to not just draw people’s attention as they flip through the dial, but get them sufficiently intrigued to shell out an extra $20 a month. They need people talking about their shows in order to clear the higher barrier to entry.
Not that Orange approaches the shock value of HBO’s breakthrough, however, or really tries (a prison official flat-out says “this isn’t Oz” when checking our heroine in for her stay). Matching Oz’s level of transgression wouldn’t even be possible now, 15+ years after the revolution in dark cable programming that it presaged, and in any case it’s not that the show is totally unconventional so much as uncommercial. And we do get a pretty white girl to function as our introduction to this world, so there is some effort to provide a surrogate for your typical Netflix subscriber. Piper Chapman, is a yuppie-ish, pretty blonde who finds her impending nuptials placed on hold while she spends a year behind bars for carrying money for a drug-running ex-girlfriend a decade earlier. Taylor Schilling, fresh off of playing the lead in Atlas Shrugged: Part One, has no problem conveying the fear and discomfort a modern woman feels upon finding herself trapped in a decrepit, underfunded system devoted to outmoded and misguided values.
Piper is a difficult role, needing to be smart and somewhat experienced in criminal enterprises, but still naïve enough about the prison experience to need the guidance that provides the audience with our exposition. She also has to remain basically sympathetic while having a dark enough edge for us to understand how she could’ve ended up in this situation and fit in amongst the crowd of flawed cable-drama protagonists. For the most part, this balance is struck nicely; a lesser show would’ve made her more innocent and concordantly more dumb, to avoid making the audience uncomfortable, but this one is rightly confident in Schilling’s ability to walk the tightrope. Actually, the only missteps come late in the season, when the show overplays condemning her selfishness, seeming to declare her generally toxic to everyone she encounters when her only really awful act involves making a mess of a relationship. Don’t get me wrong, what she does is shitty, but it’s a kind of shitty that relatively normal people are to each other all the time without the extreme pressures of prison as an added factor. It’s a broad and harsh critique that feels slightly out of sync with a character and performance that is generally kind and conscientious, and like it’s just there because alienating loved ones is how flawed cable protagonists end a season.
But it’s a minor issue in the scheme of things, as the series really shines once the setup is dispatched and Piper’s story recedes a bit to allow the rest of the ensemble to take center stage and bounce off each other. The standouts are a near-unrecognizable Kate Mulgrew as the scowling czarina who rules the kitchens with an iron fist, and The Wire’s Pablo Schreiber as an utter scumbag of a guard appropriately nicknamed “Pornstache” (his defense of said stache when it’s intimated that gay men have appropriated the look provides one of the season’s biggest laughs, due mainly to his grave delivery). But I was probably most impressed with newcomer Madeleine Brewer, who broke my heart with a tremendously vulnerable performance as an inmate struggling to cope with the loss of her girlfriend and drug supply in rapid succession. She’s far from a main character, but part of the beauty of this series is how it makes even the tangential storylines feel important enough that they could carry the show on their own, even as the episodes always circle back around to Piper eventually.
There are way too many other names that also warrant mentioning, as even folks like Laura Prepon, Jason Biggs and Natasha Lyonne are given characters pitched directly to their narrow strengths. But it’s the largely unknown cast that are the real fun, excelling across the board at crafting immediately identifiable characters from within a system that garbs them all in identical smocks and does its best to lump them together along racial lines. If I start singling more people out, I might as well just link to the imdb page (though it does feel wrong not to mention Taystee or Crazy Eyes at all), so I’ll just say that Netflix needs to give their casting director a raise and lock her down for all their future productions. The only bum note is the series “villain” played by Taryn Manning, a hillbilly religious nut who is the one character that doesn’t become a fully rounded human even after we learn about her background.
For sure, there are still some kinks to be worked out in Netflix’s all-at-once release model, as the cultural conversation doesn’t seem to quite know yet how to integrate a show when it’s served buffet style. Which is to say that when I’ve talked to people about it person, no one ever seems to be on the same episode or be sure completely sure which one they are on themselves. And this review somehow feels very late and at the same time like it’s going up before a lot of people have had the chance to finish it. Which might seem beside the point when the product is this good, but as mentioned previously, elbowing into the cultural conversation is vital for a subscription based content producer.
So even if Orange Is The New Black does not prove that Netflix is the future of television, it does prove that Netflix has a future producing television (and this show specifically, as a second season was greenlit before the first dropped). If you have the service, fire it up on Instant. It’s consistently funny, sometimes moving, and uses its very limited setting to depict an unusually broad swath of several levels of society with acuity, humor, and surprising warmth. It’s a rare female-centric show that doesn’’t lose any appeal for the guys. And Breaking Bad doesn’t start for another couple weeks anyway, so what else do you have to do?