20 September 2019
When it premiered in July 2013, Orange is the New Black was only the third original show on Netflix. House of Cards, which I’ve always maintained wasn’t half as good as reputed, will be remembered for the worst reasons. Hemlock Grove isn’t likely to be remembered at all. Which leaves us with OITNB. There are a thousand reasons Jenji Kohan’s prison-set dramedy deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest streaming series of all time. Let’s see how many I can name off the top of my head.
*Note: I will be spoiling everything. If you have not yet watched all of Orange it the New Black and you read this anyway, thereby ruining for yourself one of the great television viewing experiences of the new century, I will likely never forgive you. You’ve been warned.
The series is based on Piper Kerman’s memoir Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Woman’s Prison. Regular readers of this site may be familiar with the following argument because I bang this particular drum a lot but I’m very picky about what gets adapted and why. There has to be something about the new medium that justifies bringing the story over and telling it again. Memoir-to-television is the perfect transition for OITNB and an ideal demonstration of what I’m talking about. Television by its very nature is about world-building. What Kerman’s memoir provides is a snapshot- a relatable protagonist, a few memorable bit players, a sketch of a place most of us have never been. That’s not enough for a television show where, and stop me if this sounds too on the nose for a show about prison, the most important commodity is time, but it’s a start. More than any other medium, television affords the viewer the chance to really spend time in a place and get to know its people. From what Kerman gave her as a jumping off point, Kohan and co zoomed in and zoomed out and ran with the thing until characters who spoke a single line in the pilot felt like people we’d known our entire lives.
In season one, Kohan used Kerman’s book as a gateway, inviting the audience to follow nice safe leading lady Piper Chapman with her bougie background and non-violent criminal conviction through the doors of her fictionalized version of the prison Kerman described. If the show had ended after one season, it would have been a pretty solid adaptation of pretty adaptable material with the focus very much on the protagonist and vague character sketches from the book elaborated upon to build up the ensemble around Piper. Season one used its 13 hours to deepen, elaborate upon, and dramatize the action of real Piper’s book but it did not do so faithfully. The show let the pressure of the situation take its toll on Piper’s relationship that, improbably, actually survived in real life (Kerman and Larry are still together to this day) and brought Alex into the story, her real life counterpart and the drama of how Piper ended up in prison in the first place being a lot less emotional and intertwined with the main action of the book (Kerman and Alex, real name Catherine Cleary Wolters, spent almost no time in the same prison at the same time). It was a good season and great example of how to do right by strong source material by thinking beyond the source material.
But the feat of adaptation that was OITNB really came with later seasons as the world expanded. It’s a trendy take to say that a long-running TV show has gone on too long and I understand the criticism when you’re talking about a plotty show- there are, after all, only so many things that can happen. What can be explored endlessly is how those things happen and how different people at different points in their lives react to those things happening. On a character-based show like OITNB, time really is a gift. Season one had only six series regulars but nearly 50 other cast members made an appearance. Over seven years, the show had time to get to know almost all of them. Go back and watch those early episodes- the focus was on Piper, Alex, and Red, but Maritza is there, gossiping with Flaca in the background. It’s not just Taystee and Suzanne and Pennsatucky who were supporting players early on and would eventually carry the heart of the show. It’s (almost) everyone, even people who wouldn’t get their chance to shine for another 4 years. Cindy is there. Norma is there. If you told me in 2013 that freaking Joe Caputo would go on to be one of the most nuanced and involving characters of the decade, I’d have told you to get the hell out.
Orange is the New Black is a nearly perfect adaptation, which is why this section is so long (the others will be shorter, I hope). Kohan captured the spirit of Kerman’s book without obsessively preserving it and used that original story as a jumping off point to something so much bigger, deeper, and stronger. She added drama and romance to the main plot, thought beyond the original timeline, and, crucially, expanded and elevated supporting voices to create a diverse multi-narrative that could be anchored by the original protagonist but didn’t have to rely on her.
Which brings me to point #2: Casting
Let’s start with Taylor Schilling because that’s where our story begins. Known mostly pre-Orange as the pretty blond lady from that Zac Efron movie, Schilling was hired when the role of Piper mostly consisted of being pretty, blond, approachable, and effectively looking scared. Piper’s arc over seven seasons saw her harden into a darker version of herself who could never go back to the privileged innocent she once was. Schilling was most effective in Piper’s darkest moments when her hard-won self-preservational instincts revealed a cold, ambitious side capable of great moral compromise, her dalliance with the white supremacists in season four being the most poignant example. Schilling’s greatest asset as Piper was her willingness to embrace the ugliness of the role, both literally and figuratively. No one was at their cutest in the Orange is the New Black uniforms but the hair and makeup team were especially hard on Schilling, painting dark circles under her eyes and letting her skin look sallow and broken to communicate just how far this world was from Larry’s beach house and the sunkissed looks of Piper’s flashbacks.
Makeup was used to fascinating effect across the whole OITNB cast from the evolution of Flaca (Jackie Cruz)’s signature liner to how Lorna (Yael Stone) used beauty secrets to distract her from confronting reality. You knew to worry about Kate Mulgrew’s Red when she stopped making the effort to apply her namesake lipstick every day. In season seven, at the heart of Maritza’s vulnerability, Diane Guerrero appeared for the first time makeup-free. Guerrero’s stunning performance in season seven is one of a dozen perfect examples of the bench depth of the OITNB cast as Maritza hoisted an all-time-heavy story on her back after playing comic relief for five previous seasons (she didn’t appear in season six) . Alex Vause’s omnipresent liner and harshly drawn brows were a signal of her unflappability. As played with chilly inscrutability by the deep-voiced and unendingly imposing Laura Prepon, Alex’s guard was always up and her face always on. It was nearly impossible to see her clearly and the casting of a harsh, sometimes frustrating actress (the only one I know of who made any kind of fuss about her contract) added to her complexity as a symbol of the life that kept pulling Piper back in.
The OITNB casting system was an odd one. They started, as I mentioned, with 6 series regulars- Piper, Alex, Red, and Piper’s roommate Miss Claudette (Michelle Hurst in one of the few roles lifted pretty closely from the book that never really worked for the show) plus Michael Harney as the main CO and Jason Biggs as Piper’s fiancé Larry. Though these were pretty genuinely the main characters in season one, so much of the story of OITNB fell to the recurring guest stars right from the beginning that the TV Academy ended up having to change the rules to keep supporting actresses with recurring contracts from taking the guest star Emmy every year on a technicality (the show was also the direct catalyst for another rule change but we’ll get to that). Characters who were in every episode appeared billed as guest stars for years then were usually promoted the season after their breakout flashback episode (the show straight up stole early-season Lost structure and it worked like a charm with such a big cast of characters).
Season two’s set of promotions was probably the most impactful for the series as a whole, pulling up Taystee (Danielle Brooks), Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) and Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) from the recurring guest pool. This quartet of standout supporting actresses- alongside Piper, Alex, and Red- became the show’s core with other characters coming in and out to play major roles in specific seasons. Samira Wiley’s Poussey Washington and Adrienne C Moore’s Cindy Hayes both got the call-up technically in season three but the former was the beating heart of the show from two through four and the latter carried the tear torch for all of six and seven. Jessica Pimentel’s Maria Ruiz totally dominated the fairly alienating fifth season, her first as a series regular after four seasons as little more than an extra.
But let’s go back to those four season two call-ups because to me their promotion was when the show set itself up for longterm success. Even if season two wasn’t its strongest story-wise (Lorraine Toussaint’s single-season kingpin Vee took over and distracted from the people we really cared about), the promotions showed that Kohan and her team were on the right track about who their strongest players were and they were prepared to give them the appropriate playing time. The big breakout star of the show was Aduba, she’s the one who won Emmys and had to fend off idiotic white people who thought it was ok to dress as “Crazy Eyes” for Halloween. But perhaps what’s most notable about Aduba’s deeply sympathetic performance was how she transcended the character’s iconography to play an actual person underneath the trademark tics.
Taryn Manning went on a similar journey with Pennsatucky who, like Suzanne, started out as a broad nicknamed antagonist and eventually earned her real name, Tiffany Doggett (they had a real knack for naming on this show but damn “Tiffany Doggett” has to be the crown jewel). I’ve always been against-type fond of Manning’s scrappy underdog vibe (that’s right, I loved Crossroads; sue me) but what she was able to do over seven seasons of OITNB was next-level. If you go back and watch season one after finishing the series, just how massive of a character shift Doggett went through is completely jarring but Manning and the writers never pushed her too far at once, inching her piece by piece on an arc that meaningfully ran opposite to most other characters- as prison darkened them, Pennsatucky found salvation (at first the wrong kind but she got there eventually). Her end felt somehow both shocking and inevitable, the perfect kind of ending. I really don’t say this lightly but any discussion of the greatest arcs in television history could not be complete without the extraordinary feats of Taryn Manning as Tiffany Doggett.
But if we’re talking favourites, as we always somehow are in the end, you probably know where we’re going. Before starting on Orange is the New Black, Danielle Brooks and Samira Wiley were classmates at Juilliard, because of course they were. Cast as best friends then tasked with some of the most demanding emotional material I’ve ever seen on television, they were a duo for the ages, their tragedies hurting all the more because their default mode was joy. The only thing I didn’t love about Taystee Jefferson and Poussey Washington was the overly cutesy gimmick of their last names (which honestly took me years to notice and I sometimes like to think was accidental, naive though that probably is). Wiley had an entrancing quality (backed by the phenomenal story of how she met her wife on set; read it HERE) but as much as I loved her, life moved on after her death at the end of season four (more on that in a moment) and Danielle Brooks carried Taystee to the very centre of the show. Piper this, Piper that, blah blah blah… Taystee was the main character of Orange is the New Black. At least in the end, it was her show. Taystee was based on a throwaway joke character in the book, a mild curiosity named Delicious, but then they cast a classically trained supernova so the character turned into the anchor to which the audience’s hearts were tied.
Ebbs, flows, and Season Four
So let’s talk about it, the season that makes Orange it the New Black the masterpiece that it is. It wasn’t always brilliant. I might even argue that what actually made the show a masterpiece was its ability to come back after a weak season. On the whole, OITNB has about the same number of great seasons as The West Wing but the WW seasons form a pretty simple pattern when you chart their overall quality- up and up through season two then a straight downward trend. Orange started strong, took a dip, bounced back, soared to great heights, took a big fall, leapt back up, then ended on a moderate high. Even within each season there were highs and lows, things that work incredibly well and things that fall completely flat. Season seven is a perfect example- the show’s most obvious, heavy-handed year but also home to some of its most emotionally impactful moments. All my favourite shows have bad parts. In order to survive a long run, you have to try things, and some of those things aren’t going to work. But some of them are. A perfect show is called a mini-series with its ending written before its beginning begins and that’s got a place in pop culture, sure, but it’s got a lot less appeal for me than a show that’s running like life- build a world, tell stories in it. Sometimes that looks like season five (brutal, over-dramatic, drawn out) but sometimes it looks like season four.
I don’t usually like binge shows as much as weeklies and one of the principal reasons is how concentrated the experience is. An Orange is the New Black season usually took me about a week to get through and, for that one week a year, I watched nothing else. If I’m being totally honest with you, I probably didn’t do all that much else either. I just watched Orange is the New Black until there was no Orange is the New Black left to watch, then I moved on with the rest of my life and wouldn’t dip back into that world until 51 weeks later (or whenever Netflix dropped the next season, they were never consistent with release dates). In a way, OITNB is the one show I think was maybe better as a binge- for that one week you’d be totally immersed, trapped, and the intensity of the world you were trapped in felt all-consuming. On a thematic level, it’s hard to argue with the binge model for this particular show. For a so-so season, the OITNB binge experience was entertaining but not all that memorable. But I will never forget the experience of the week I spent with season four.
Season four explored the consequences of prison privatization (the Mike Birbiglia storyline doesn’t get enough credit) and expanded on groundwork laid in earlier seasons with regards to guard abuse (once again, ladies and gentlemen- Taryn Manning!). Mental health played a major role as Lori Petty’s sublime performance as Lolly Whitehill finally got its due (episode 407 “It Sounded Nicer in my Head” written by Nick Jones is truly unforgettable). Season four was when the show finally grew a pair when it came to white supremacy and the darkest reality of the racial segregation that was a part of the show from the jump (Asia Kate Dillon as Brandy is another all-star turn). The brutal and/or undertrained staff and worsening conditions led to peaceful protest (and the emergence of Laura Gómez’s heretofore almost completely silent Blanca) and said peaceful protest led to excessive force, which led to the single most devastating hour of television in memory. I vividly remember watching the final episode of the fourth season, which deals with the direct aftermath of the death of Poussey. It took me two full hours to watch; I had to keep pausing because I was crying too hard to see the screen clearly through my glasses. The crying was three-fold, a lot to do with Danielle Brooks’ heartbreaking performance as a heartbroken Taystee mourning her best friend, in part a reaction to the powerful circumstances of Poussey’s death and the “I just can’t believe it” brutality of the moment, and honestly a lot of the tears were purely just for the loss of Poussey. I loved her. And that’s the beautiful thing about a really excellent long-running show, you get to know these people and genuinely care what happens to them and, even though they’re not real, you miss them when they’re gone. I cry easily, too easily, and it’s not rare for me to cry over a TV character, but I’ve never cried harder than I cried for Poussey. 2016 was an all-time great year in television, for my money the peak of peak TV to date, but that year Orange is the New Black topped ‘em all.
I planned to write a specific section on the show’s Politics and how they factor into its overall impact but it’s impossible to isolate Orange is the New Black’s politics from every other aspect of the production so I’ve already talked about them at length. To call it refreshingly diverse is an understatement; to praise it for the complexity of its incredible ensemble of empowered women is reductive; to point out its thoughtful commentary on the prison industrial complex is so obvious it borders on silly. OITNB was on the frontlines of progressive storytelling from trans rights to immigrant abuse to addiction issues to mental health to violence against women to religious hypocrisy to hate speech to the crushing economic hardship that results in a devastating cycle of poverty and crime. With few exceptions, all this was handled with nuance and humility that allowed beloved characters to be in the wrong and antagonistic forces to evolve. Dark topics were addressed with humour, avoiding the intolerable “this is Important” tone whenever possible (it wasn’t always possible, nothing’s perfect). Most importantly, the characters were never at the service of the show’s politics, they weren’t there to make a big voice-of-the-author speech unless they were the sort of character to make a speech. OITNB grappled with big issues because its characters were facing big issues and they grappled with them honestly.
The show’s ability to laugh in the face of tragedy brings me to the last big point on my list- Genre.
I always say my favourite properties have no genre and Orange is the New Black is the quintessential example. Literally, it’s the first show to be nominated for both comedy and drama Emmys, eventually forcing the Academy to clarify the rules about what qualifies as a comedy and what qualifies as a drama (the answer they came up with is hourlong shows are dramas and half hours are comedies, which is inaccurate but not more inaccurate than some other arbitrary classification system would be). Orange is the New Black was often broadly comedic (we haven’t even talked about Pablo Schreiber as Pornstache! What a brilliant tightrope of a performance that was), often wryly comedic (also criminally under-discussed in this article: Natasha Lyonne), at times pitch black with irony so brutal it feels like a painful cosmic joke (once more for the road, everyone say it with me now- TARYN MANNING!), and then sometimes they kill Poussey and you think you might never laugh again/what even is laughter. But sometimes they play kickball instead of starting a gang war.
That’s the heart of it, the big secret that made Orange is the New Black work- it was never one thing. It was never a comedy or a drama or a straight adaptation or total fiction or anything straight forward at all. It was all of it. Its heroes were criminals, its criminals were victims, its victims were perpetrators, its perpetrators were justified, and some of them weren’t, it depends how you look at it, and what informs that perspective, and whether those things were fair, or maybe that doesn’t matter either because right is right and wrong is wrong, but who decides that, and who gave them the right, and what circumstances put them in that position, and were those fair, and do you see my point? It’s a mess. It’s seven uneven seasons with a sprawling cast and enough contradictions to make you go crazy if you badly need it to fit neatly into a set of expectations formed by all the TV that came before. It’s a beautiful human mess and TV will never be the same. I’ll never not be grateful that I got to watch Orange is the New Black.