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Brilliant ‘Orange’

The return of Netflix’s stunning success, ‘Orange Is the New Black’

If we’re being honest, Orange was never meant to be the new black. In early 2013, as Netflix prepared its big push into original programming, its priority was House of Cards, and with good reason: That series had the glittery Hollywood pedigree of director David Fincher, the dishy locale of Washington, D.C., and, in star Kevin Spacey, ample servings of both ham and cheese. Whatever funds remained in the PR budget after Cards’ February debut fell to Arrested Development, a heavily hyped resurrection project that had the majority of the Internet blueing itself in anticipation. That both shows ultimately disappointed — the former with its hot air, the latter with its lumpy sprawl1 — was almost irrelevant. Netflix was much more interested in your attention than your acclaim. Unlike the broadcasters it seeks to usurp, Netflix needs only to spark interest in its projects, not maintain it.2 A curious customer is a consistent customer. Under Netflix’s subscription plan, you’re paying if you watch every episode or none at all.

Compared with those big-ticket projects, Orange Is the New Black arrived like unglamorous inventory. Adapted by Weeds creator Jenji Kohan from Piper Kerman’s memoir, the series dropped onto the Netflix servers with a thud a week after Independence Day. Unlike with Cards and Arrested, there were no A-list celebrities to promote, no preexisting fires to stoke. The series had a high concept — preppy blonde is sent to a minimum-security women’s prison — but a remarkably low-key, almost improvisational feel. With its enormous cast and yo-yoing tone (from ferocious to farce in the time it took to conduct a strip search), Orange seemed like the sort of established showrunner passion project that can be indulged only by a company flush with cash and distracted by all the potential ways to spend it.3 It also seemed like the kind of series that would require an analog virtue Netflix had previously not shown much interest in: patience. Spicy, salty, and laced with unfamiliar ingredients, Orange was a strange fit for Netflix’s otherwise predictable buffet. How hard would it be to convince an audience accustomed to the instant gratification of bingeing to sample something new?

Not hard at all, as it turned out. Freed from the whiplash parabola of anticipation/disappointment that had fueled Netflix’s previous shows, Orange simmered and bubbled throughout the long, hot summer. In the midst of a cultural landscape desiccated by the heat of a million takes, the relative quiet surrounding the series was like an oasis.

To watch felt more like a thrilling discovery than an obligation. It also felt like an antidote. As the heavy footprints left by a decade of swaggering, same-y male antiheroes receded from view, here finally was a show committed to real diversity. Not just in terms of the casting — though with its preponderance of black and brown faces and multiple sexual orientations and gender identities Orange looked a lot more like the country than most series that purport to reflect it — but also in terms of the stories it was willing to tell. Orange’s protagonists had all committed crimes, but that was what they had done, not who they were. First and foremost, they were women: lively, strong, hilarious, heartbreaking women. Freed from the predictable, hectoring roles of mothers and wives — though not, you know free — the inmates of Litchfield penitentiary were allowed to be just as fucked up and fascinating as TV’s men. It had to have been as refreshing to the actresses as it was to the audience. Instead of relying on the dull glow of fading stars to do the heavy lifting, Orange gave us an entire galaxy.

As a result of this, Netflix’s choose-your-own-adventure programming style finally made sense artistically as well as commercially. Unlike Cards’ foaming froth, episodes of Orange were as broad as they were deep. One could dive in, but it was also possible (and possibly even better) to soak them up slowly. Each hour made things darker and weirder; every installment allowed another character to shine. It was too good to resist. After initially ignoring Orange, I cannonballed in a few weeks after the premiere. Though I had friends who didn’t start their sentence until the holidays, I don’t know a soul who was able to begin the show without finishing it. Netflix stubbornly refuses to release any specific viewership data, but the company was sufficiently shocked by Orange’s quietly mushrooming numbers to admit it had become the most-watched series on its servers. Doing time — and encouraging the taking of it — had paid off in a major way.

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Time is both the central subject of Orange Is the New Black and, potentially, its burden.4 As the show returns for a second season this Friday (once again all 13 episodes will arrive en masse), the biggest question isn’t what it can do — it’s whether it can do it all again. And for how long. Piper Chapman, the show’s unexpectedly punchy lead, played by Taylor Schilling, is serving a sentence of just 15 months. That’s the sort of inconvenient detail that can be ignored in the stressy and uncertain early days of a series, when the future isn’t guaranteed and is largely unwritten. (Case in point: The sparkling Danielle Brooks was originally signed for only two episodes. When Taystee popped off the screen, Kohan had to scramble to find a way to get her back behind bars.) As Orange settles in for a long run — Season 3 was commissioned last month — Kohan and her writers must gently pump the brakes on their story, even as the clamor for more and more plot grows louder. All TV shows rely on flimsy mechanisms to keep their ensembles together — a paper company in Scranton offered more job security than the IRS — but Orange unites its characters against their will in a place they’re desperate to escape. A generation ago, M*A*S*H stretched out the Korean War for eight years longer than it actually lasted. I wonder if contemporary audiences, as vigilant about accuracy as they are about emotion, would accept such creative liberties today.

Judging from the first few episodes of Orange’s second season, it’s a question being asked in the writers’ room as well. “Everything ends,” Piper says at one point to a new arrival. “Even prison.” It just won’t end any time soon. The wonderfully disorienting season premiere — those still hanging by their fingernails from last year’s violent cliffhanger should expect to linger awhile longer — devotes its entire hour to muddying Piper’s already dicey legal situation. (I won’t spoil anything, but rest assured that just as Laura Prepon’s sultry Alex got Piper into this mess, she continues to keep her in it.) The action occurs far from Orange’s familiar halls, giving Schilling another chance to play befuddlement like a Stradivarius. And it’s also a winning showcase for Kohan’s inimitable voice. In just 50-plus minutes she introduces us to an entirely new coterie of scary monsters and super creeps, from a face-licking, tongue-biting amateur astrologist to a panty-sniffing dude who terrifies Piper until she learns, to her great relief, that he’s not a rapist, just a hit man. As ever, Kohan is admirably unafraid to play around with the sharp stuff. Still, the bits that stick tend to be the ones that take you by surprise. After spending a season in the insular, female-dominated world of Litchfield, it’s legitimately jarring to see Piper suddenly at the mercy of leering, jabbing, dismissive men. “I think I moved beyond stress into something more disturbing,” she says of her internal state, though the implication is that she’s been parked there much longer than she realizes.

As good as Schilling is in the role — notice the way her eyes have deadened as Piper’s optimism has faded, the way her cheekbones appear to have been sharpened like shivs — there exists a not-uncompelling argument that Orange might be better off without her in it. After all, the ensemble is strong enough without her. (It goes without saying that it would be better off without Jason Biggs’s Larry, Piper’s vestigial nebbish.) Interestingly, the season’s second episode tackles this criticism head-on. With Piper still waylaid from the events of the premiere, the hour is wholly devoted to catching up with all our old friends, from mouthy Nicky (Natasha Lyonne, still dispensing premium vinegar) to silent Norma (Annie Golden). Though Piper’s presence lingers — dandelions don’t blow away that easily — I can’t say she is much missed. At least not at first.

Instead, it’s almost dizzying to be reintroduced to so many phenomenal personalities so quickly: There’s Red (Kate Mulgrew), wallowing in her reduced circumstance! There’s Daya (Dascha Polanco) being battered back and forth like a pregnant pingpong ball between two mothers — Aleida, her real one (Elizabeth Rodriguez), and Gloria, her surrogate (Selenis Leyva)! There’s even room for a new character, Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), a heroin queenpin who arrives with a mysterious connection to Taystee (Brooks has a deservedly enhanced role in Year 2). Though fierce, often bloody conflict fuels the show’s plot — beware the return of Taryn Manning’s feral terrier Pennsatucky — it’s the genuine warmth that provides nearly all of its pleasure. Orange’s best moments are often the emptiest: Poussey (Samira Wiley) pissing off Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore) in a heated game of charades; Sophia (Laverne Cox) squeezing into a cocktail dress at a job fair. Denied the world, these women are forced to improvise their own, often with surprisingly tender results.

As the inmates struggle to fill the long hours and days ahead of them — with petty grievances, with inside jokes, with loud, potentially unsanitary sex in the toilet stalls — it’s easy to imagine Orange Is the New Black eventually moving on from Piper. Rather than continuing to gin up ways to keep her in the joint beyond her original sentence — perhaps she failed to work the requisite number of shifts at the Park Slope co-op? — the show could simply divvy up her camera time among the other cons. Few showrunners are as naturally digressive as Kohan — Episode 2 features disquisitions on constipation and Monsanto — so it shouldn’t be a problem. And as long as there are actors like Uzo Aduba playing characters like Suzanne, a.k.a. “Crazy Eyes,” it’ll likely be essential viewing. The third episode, built around Suzanne’s backstory, is particularly devastating, an undelicate, unexploded land mine of race, liberal guilt, adoption, and anxiety. You could make the argument that another show might tackle some of these messy topics more elegantly but, to be honest, I can’t think of another show that would dare to tackle them at all.

The truth is, I’m not ready to see Piper trade in her jumpsuit just yet. In its first season, Orange Is the New Black was about a stranger in a strange land. Using her privilege and relative stability as a life preserver, Piper was able to float on the surface of Litchfield. It wasn’t until the very end that she was irrevocably pulled under. In Season 2, with Piper no better (and potentially much worse!) off than her peers, the show has finally collapsed the iffy borders that separated the haves from the have-nots, “us” from “them.” Everyone is gen pop now, milling about and mixing in disturbing and provocative ways. In prison, there are no tourists and being scared straight is an oxymoron: Whether they show it or not, everyone is equally terrified. What if I don’t make it out? What if I do? The beating heart of Orange Is the New Black is actually a ticking clock. Your time in solitary is nearly up. 

Filed Under: TV, orange is the new black, Netflix, jenji kohan

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Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ andygreenwald

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